I love camping: I suppose there is just something about taking the time to simply be in the outdoors that allows the world to insinuate itself upon you in the most pleasing way. And I find Islay a particularly inspiring landscape. I like to potter about just looking at stuff, and always come home with a head and notebook full of ideas. Good weather helps too, of course: being able to sit outside in the long, light evenings watching hares, and listening to the wark-wark of corncrakes is a delicious kind of treat.
The things I see around me in Scotland, and the photographs I take of them are certainly my principal source of inspiration. Oftentimes it is the “feel” of something in a photograph (or perhaps more accurately the memory the photographs invoke of the feel of a place, thing, or occasion) that sparks off an idea. Here are a few groups of images that may or may not work their way into a thought . . . that later works its way into a design.
Hiya, it is I, Bruce. I was born on the 27th May, and now I am two years old. This weekend we celebrated my birthday at some very fun places called Inner Hebrides. To travel there, you have to get on noisyboat.
As everybody knows, I am called Bruce. Yet apparently I have another name that no-one ever calls me. This other name – Finlaggan – was hitherto unknown to me and it belongs to Kennel Club. Now, as far as I know, a kennel is a sort of dog prison, and belonging to a club of kennels does not interest me at all. Also, if this other name is my “proper” name, then why on earth am I known as Bruce? Clearly, being two years old means that the humans can now bother me with these confusing and pointless issues of nomenclature.
This other name – Finlaggan – also belongs to a place on the island of Islay. Kate told me that this place was once the seat of the Lords of the Isles.
Finlaggan is surrounded by water: good. Finlaggan is a Historic Site: bad. What is the point of all this lovely water if you cannot run about and jump in it?
Kate told me that Finlaggan was my spiritual home. Though it is a very nice spot, I think it may actually be more her kind of place than mine.
This tidy pile is currently on the market for a mere 1.6 million donuts. I think it would suit me down to the ground.
Imagine me, if you will, bounding unconstrained through the twenty four bedrooms, and wreaking happy havoc in the deer larder.
Truly, a hoose for Bruce. Unfortunately for me, my humans’ tastes are a little more modest.
But even so, I think I’m lucky to have them. We always have fun.
. . . though sometimes you do have to question their sanity.
Anyway, despite not even knowing what a birthday was before last week, I had an excellent one. I’m now looking forward to many more with the humans.
Pretty exhausting, really.
See you soon, love Bruce x
Would you like to come for a short walk on Jura?
Leave your money in the honesty box by the tree, and follow the path to Jura House garden. With its mix of Scottish wild flowers and victorian woodland planting, the surrounding landscape looks like a fairy glade.
Then you open a door in the garden wall, and enter another world entirely
Because of the gulf stream, Jura has a very mild climate, but, as one might expect from a Hebridean island, it is buffeted by wind. Sitting on a sunny south-west slope, and protected behind high walls, the garden flourishes on Jura.
Laid out in the early nineteenth-century, the garden was originally designed to provide produce and flowers for the estate. The feel of the Victorian kitchen remains here, but the planting is now managed with a looseness and informality that I really liked. The feel of the space is intimate, comfortable, and not at all pristine.
each pathway opens up another delicious combination of colour and texture.
and there are plenty of places to rest and enjoy the fragrances and shifting sounds of the garden. The air is alive with magnolia, wild garlic, and many buzzing things.
Walls, of course, mean private property: they are there to keep the outside out. At Ardfin, this is forcibly brought to mind in the story of one notorious nineteenth-century estate owner, who cleared the nearby crofting community of Brosdale because it spoiled her prospect view. Today, however, the walls of Jura House are permeable, and its garden is very much a public space. One of the most impressive things about it is how it fits into the surrounding landscape: through careful estate management, the garden’s inside and its outside work in harmony. Beyond the garden walls, you can continue your walk along a spectacular cliffside to Poll a’ Cheo, (the misty pool) and its stone-age burial site.
To the south-east you see the mull of Kintyre, and the hills of Arran beyond:
And lovely Islay lies across the sound to the west:
Wild orchids thrive on the hillside, and, by the water’s edge, the shilasdair is coming into bloom:
A walk with a perfect mix of the cultivated and the wild.
I heart Jura.
Seven miles and a very enjoyable walk later, we climbed up a cliffside on the remote and empty north-west of the island and wondered if we would be able to find our bottle. Last August, we had dug a hole near the heather line, covered up the mead, and placed a large stone to mark the spot. Since then, the heather appeared to have receded, and other visitors had added other stones to ours.
The site now resembled a small burial cairn — which I suppose is exactly what it was. Underneath the stones was a bare patch of ground, and what seemed to be solid peat. Tom began to dig. Was the mead still there?
Of course it was!
It is hard to convey just how excited we were to see this bottle again. It had spent three seasons in the ground of Carraig Mhór, above the swirling, whirling, myth-infused waters of Corryvreckan. Our mead had lain there, quietly wintering with with Cailleach Bheur above the whirlpool in which Orwell had almost drowned. As a friend of ours said after a few in the bar of the Jura hotel on Saturday night, “that bottle is bigger than both of you.”
It tasted damn fine, anyway.
I can also confirm that the returning foot miles seemed to pass by rather quickly in a sort of warm, meady fug. Which was good, since we were walking into a headwind. Slainte!
I’m a woman that likes whisky. Now, I know I don’t need to explain this to you. I know that you may like whisky too. And I’m sure that if you do like it, if you have any sort of taste or enthusiasm for any type of usquebah, that you will probably have encountered at least one of these common assumptions about women and whisky.
1. You must be a masculine woman.
Because women don’t really like whisky, do they? The kind of woman who drinks whisky only does so as a pseudo-masculine conceit, doesn’t she? Some sort of attempt to get down with ver lads? A whisky-drinkin’ woman is laying desperate claim to a man’s balls, capability and ambition. Doesn’t Mrs Thatcher like to drink whisky? And Madonna too? Well, there you go then.
2. You would rather be drinking Baileys.
You are visiting a distillery and are automatically offered some hideous gloopy sweet concoction in lieu of the tasty dram that you came looking for. For, it is assumed by some makers and purveyors of the good stuff that, simply because you don’t have testicles, you would automatically rather be drinking something creamy or pastel coloured with a fookin umbrella stuck in inside it.
3. You prefer ‘feminine’ whisky.
Would you like a lowland malt, madam? I’m sure your delicate palate isn’t up to the bruising of a brutish Caol Ila. Surely you’d rather have a Bladnoch? A ladies dram?
Given these persistent and hard-to-shake assumptions about women whisky drinkers, I was very interested to read this piece about the recent rise of women members of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. In the article, the SMWS celebrates the fact that it has managed to create the ‘right atmosphere’ for women. As one of them (ahem) I wouldn’t dispute this, but I wonder whether the SMWS might now, in a similar spirit of accommodation, turn its attention to the language of its panel’s tasting notes?
For example in the current list, cask 29.67 is described thus:
“In the unreduced taste the panel found scorched bacon, peanut brittle sprinkled with chimney soot and rubber in the nicest way — can you imagine it? Maybe Ursula Andress in a wetsuit. . . “
Now, I love reading the SMWS’s tasting notes, and they are not specifically at fault here. For you will find comparisons of whisky to women, ranging from the predictable to the bizarre, throughout most whisky ‘bibles’ and all over the review pages of Whisky Magazine. Here, for example, is one eminent whisky critic’s description of a 12 year old Rosebank:
“Relatively young, but beginning to weary nonetheless. Perhaps this tiredness is caused by worry about the future. A feminine whisky that has lost the first bloom of youth. Snatch a kiss while you can.”
This sleazy uncle stuff is fairly typical of the genre, but more surprising (to me at least) was this review of a 15 year old Glenmorangie which appeared a few days ago on the ScotchChix blog
“This older sister to Glenmorangie 10, the girl next door, is a bit of a wallflower. With her strawberry nose and vanilla palate, Glenmorangie 15 should be just as pleasing as her sibling. However, she simply doesn’t open up the way Glenmorangie 10 does, leaving this Scotch Chick just a tad disappointed.”
To me, that’s poorly written as well as being offensive. Aigugh!
Whisky is something that inherently evokes fascination and desire. It is a drink that is both complex and elusive. Because it is all of these things, one of the principal vocabularies used to describe it is that of sexual — and specificially heterosexual — possession. And while the culture of whisky production, sale, and consumption may be shifting to accomodate women, the vocabulary of whisky certainly hasn’t caught up yet. Its always demure or yielding this, coy or coquettish that. But whisky is not a woman. And such comparisons of whisky-to-woman act, I’m sure, as an impediment to many women’s enjoyment of a wee dram or two — reinforcing that persistent and eroneous stereotype of it being a man’s drink.
But there are other whisky metaphors no less evocative, and certainly not as irritating as those afforded by gender. For example, this whisky seller has superb tasting notes that are redolent, idiosyncratic, and never resort to an offensive language of sexual desire (at least not that I’ve seen). For example, their website describes a Talisker 25 year old suggestively as “the love child of Brian Ferry and Eartha Kitt”. References to the Who’s great performances, Moon still at the drums, abound. These epithets may be obscure to some, but to me are far more powerful and compelling than any comparison to a leering whore or a perfumed great aunt (the latter being a favourite reference point of whisky critics for the output of closed Forres distillery, Dallas Dhu).
Anyway, as you may have gathered, one of the things I enjoy so much about Islay is the whisky. It was, in fact, an Ardbeg at the Port Charlotte Hotel that induced my own whisky epiphany some years ago. The taste of an Ardbeg 10 or a Bowmore 17 just says Islay to me, it speaks of gold and green and blue, of rocks and peat and salt water, in a manner more vivid and eloquent than any metaphor I or anyone else could dream up. And, after all this discussion about the language of whisky, I find that I really lack one to adequately capture the feel of Bowmore’s lochside warehouse, with the cool smell of the sea and the promise of its slowly aging casks. I just don’t have the words to describe it. But it is something very close to whisky heaven.
Is it possible to be a militant wild camper? If it is, I am one. Unlike the rest of the UK, where camping is currently legally restricted, in Scotland you can camp anywhere you like, as long as you are sensible, responsible, and follow the terms of the Outdoor Access Code. The Land Reform Act of 2003 was a great piece of Scottish Parliament legislation. This act ended what was effectively a system of Feudal Law, granted crofting communities the right to own the land they had lived and worked for generations, and enabled public access to one of the best things about Scotland — its amazing landscape.
I love camping, and wild camping best of all. It is not that I don’t appreciate camp site amenities. But for me the silence and the isolation of a wild pitch offers a luxury beyond that of any shower block. Anyone who has been kept awake by insane laughter and someone shrieking ‘come on Kenny, give us another blowback’ (Glencoe) or striking up the banjo a la Deliverance in the early hours (County Antrim) will know exactly what I mean.
Come on, how can you argue with that?
We go to Islay every year, and usually pitch right here. It is a wonderful spot. It faces West, on the shores of a beautiful loch. Behind the pitch is a rocky cliffside and verdant grassland. Water, cliffside, meadow: these environments support an amazing range of flora and fauna which, in your tent, you can quietly live among. It is a wild and lovely place. But in less than half an hour you can walk to a pub and other useful amenities. To be explicit: one can enjoy everything one likes about the great Islay outdoors without ever having to take a shit in it.
This is a place where it is good just to be. To take in the colours . . .
. . . and the textures of the shoreline.
I like the shore’s detritus too. . .
(I suppose these rubbery hand-ghosts are a routine phenomenon anywhere where there is lots of fishing, but I am spotting large numbers of them this year).
So just stick me in a tent on the shores of Loch Indaal, with Mr B for good laughs, camera and bins for the wildlife, and a few tasty wee drams and I’m a very happy camper.
(note, I’m wearing Kaari. Still going strong).
More from Islay and Jura tomorrow.