Little Ol’ Whisky Drinker Me – A Comedy Writer’s Tour of Islay

Pause for a dram on beautiful Machir Bay

Warning: All characters appearing in this blog are real. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely on purpose.

Those of you that regularly follow my tweets will know I visited one of the many beautiful, under populated corners of Scotland when I took an escorted whisky tour with Scottish Routes in July this year.

‘Can’t wait for you to meet the Queen of the Hebrides,’ my hosts @ScottishRoutes tweeted me – resulting in a fifteen minute Google search, as I looked up the name of the ferry that was to take me across from the mainland. In case you don’t know what I didn’t know, I’ll save you the trouble. The Queen of the Hebrides is not a ship taking you to Islay, it IS Islay.

There is something else I didn’t know before the tour. Islay isn’t pronounced I-S-L-A-Y. It’s I-S-L-A-G-H – as in Isla St Clair, Isla Fisher and Isla-have another whisky.

You might think my visit to this mecca of whisky connoisseurs worldwide, with its eight distilleries, all of which I was going to visit for a tasting, understandable. Until you learn that I don’t – or didn’t – like whisky. ‘Why on earth?’, I don’t hear you ask. (Because you are reading this and I am, let’s face it, probably out walking the dogs by now). Well, I was on a serious mission this time – to write a highly unusual, in-my-inimitable-style travel article. PS this isn’t it…

ImageI’m not normally what you might call a writer of facticles, mainly because I like to make up my own words for stuff – and refer to things as ‘stuff’. Yet this trip brought me two challenges; to write something off the comedic line and to taste a lot of samples of – and learn all about – an alcoholic beverage I have never enjoyed for four days straight. Yes, that’s sans mixers. And, dear reader, I tried them all – what must have amounted to around twenty shots in four days. This is because the beauty of an escorted tour of distilleries affords you some generous sampling opportunities and, although I was a sworn whisky hater, I made a unique discovery about myself – I don’t like ‘peaty’ whiskys. But I do like lesser peated ones. To explain, during the drying process of the damp malt over a peat heated fire, the smoke gets into the barley. The difference in the smokiness of the whisky depends on the time the barley is exposed to the biting peat smoke. So, the fact is you cannot say, ‘I don’t like whisky,’ until you have tried them all. You now have my permission to do so. Tell them Heather said it’s an essential education 🙂

Thanks to my Scottish Routes tour guide James Donaldson, for a wonderful tour and oodles of patience. Not only did he show us the delights of what was undeniably one of the most beautiful and friendly places on earth, but he also rescued my sunglasses after I left them in the wonderful Lochside Hotel one night. The fab folk there had greeted me like an old friend because we had met on Twitter beforehand – then heckled me in an amplified fashion as I walked past the singing, guitar playing manager on my way to the loo:

‘Let us know if you can hear us while you’re in there Heather and we’ll let you know if we can hear you!’ 🙂

I didn’t take this little joke seriously for a moment. Of course they couldn’t hear me; I checked under the toilet seat for microphones.

Tour guide James also had to help me apologise profusely to the owner of the fantastic hidden gem that is Islay Woollen Mill. Not only did I arrive late for the tour after pausing outside to take photos, but I unknowingly passed by the group gathered behind some shelving and headed upstairs to the owners’ living quarters, attracting the attention of their rather lovely, elderly dog Tam, who was guarding the door against pesky, lost tourists.

‘Please don’t let him come downstairs, he’s very frail,’ owner Gordon Covell called up to me as I greeted Tam with a pat on the head. Turning round to realise I was stood on the open staircase directly above the group in full view of everyone, I tripped somewhat sheepishly back down to where I was supposed to be – with the group listening to Gordon’s talk about how Queen Elizabeth once turned up in person to buy tweed from him. A fluffy tickle behind my knee then alerted me to the fact that Tam was now behind me, having followed me downstairs.

The World’s only Slubbing Billy & the tartan used in the film Braveheart – made at the tiny Islay Woollen Mill

‘I’m.. I’m.. so sorry, ‘ I stammered, turning bright pink as everyone stared at me and my new canine pal with bemused smiles. The group were used to me by now. I imagined reading their postcards home:

‘Having a fab time in Islay. Met the actual Calamity Jane.’

Having to interrupt his talk because of the crazy lady for a second time, Gordon told me, ‘Oh, Tam never goes downstairs because it’s hard on his old, arthritic legs. Never mind. I’ll carry him back up in a bit.’

Which he did.

I left with a memory of taking a final look at the splendid view of this quaint, one hundred and thirty year old mill in its idyllic, beside-a-stream setting,  where tartan from several Hollywood blockbuster movies was designed and produced. It is me peering from our mini-coach window as it pulled away – and spying Gordon chasing old Tam out of the front door as he tried to follow us.

By the end of my tour, I did find a new appreciation for whisky, taking home a cheeky, rather scrumptious Bruichladdich, which Mr and I slugged as we celebrated my signing with literary agent Hannah Ferguson of the Marsh Agency shortly after my return.

I truly had the time of my life so a HUGE thanks to Scottish Routes – I honestly cannot recommend their four day whisky tour highly enough. It was an out of this world experience I’ll never forget and up there as one of the best things I’ve ever done. In true holiday snaps sharing fashion, here is a little video montage of photos with some more info from my trip. Don’t tell me you’ve never been to Islay. GO to Islay! You can check out how to book with Scottish Routes HERE

Learn more about Islay HERE


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