Scotland's Western Isles, the Hebrides, are tamed -- just barely. The sea around them is the gray Atlantic, churned up by currents and dotted with rocky shoals. Their towns are built around piers and harbor warehouses. Their countryside is open, cool, misty and quiet. You drive for miles without passing a house and cross straits where the tide alone kicks up whitecaps. In the Hebrides, you remember that Scotland is as far north as Labrador.
The Isle of Islay is the southernmost island of the Hebridean archipelago. It has been one of history's crossroads: for Irish monks, feuding clansmen and Victorian lairds of the manor. Nowadays the tourist route bypasses Islay. The loudest noises you hear are tractors, ferryboat engines and foghorns, and the honking of startled geese. The closest thing to an industry is the patient craft of whiskey distilling.
Islay (pronounced Eel-uh by its Gaelic natives, and Eye-la by its English-speakers) is shaped like a lopsided, bent over figure eight, 20 miles long on a side. The people who live there, the Ilich, number only 3,800. From the ferry, as you approach, the island looks barren -- breakers, a rocky shore and, behind that, moorland folded into high, empty hills. This is when you remember, apprehensively, the 250 ships wrecked off Islay since 1769 -- among them the emigrant ship Exmouth, lost with all hands in 1847, and the two American troopships (one torpedoed) that went down in 1918.
The names of Islay's towns tell much about island life: Port Ellen, Port Charlotte, Port Askaig, Port Wemyss, Portnahaven. Other place-names, like Ballygrant and Ballinaby, remind you that Islay is less than a day's sail from Ireland. Kilchoman, Kildalton, Killarow and Kilmeny, the names of Islay's parishes, recall Ireland indirectly: The prefix kil is Gaelic for chapel.
The odd name out is Bowmore, Islay's capital. Bowmore is the island's largest town, the only one large enough to have a cross-hatching of streets. Here are the island's hospital and high school. The round church of Killarow -- Scotland's only round church, built without corners so that the devil would have no place to hide -- gazes down Main Street into the heart of town. In the market square are pharmacies, grocery stores, banks and the island's tourist office and tartan shop. Bowmore, nonetheless, is hardly bustling. Even at lunchtime the streets are empty, and some of the downtown buildings were thatched as late as the 1960s.
Bowmore's two busiest days both revolved around visitors to the island. The more recent occurred in 1980, when Queen Elizabeth II visited. The earlier was in 1813, when American privateer Paul Jones sailed up Loch Indaal. Paul Jones never achieved the fame of his earlier namesake, John Paul Jones, but Bowmore remembers him still, as the "piratical 'bloody Yankee.' " Raiding Bowmore barbor, he burned seven ships at anchor there.
On Islay, the Bank of Scotland is the Banca Na H-Alba, its name reflecting that nearly half the population speaks Gaelic. The grocers sell individual cellophane-wrapped slices of melon -- a delicacy here, where the diet is built around potatoes, turnips and the local cheese (distinctive but mild). The islanders ornament their gateposts with lumps of quartz; the result looks like weathered marble statuary -- an architectural detail as characteristic of Islay as Bowmore's round church.
South of Bowmore, on the lowlands by Laggan Bay, the road to Port Ellen runs for miles across a peat bog. Black bricks are stacked in beehive-shaped mounds beside the road; long, square-cut ditches, with black water pooled in the bottom, stretch back toward the hills. Many of the ditches are now cut by machine, but others are still spaded out by the islanders. You can rent a patch of bog for a few pounds, cut the peat in the spring, leave the bricks to drain over the summer, then cart it home for winter fuel. The Ilich reliance on peat gives Islay's chimney smoke a homey smell.
Most of the rest of Islay is grazing country. The pastures are grazed by sheep and Highland cattle -- shaggy beasts, like oversized Old English sheepdogs with horns. Along the shore you see flocks of black-and-white geese. The geese ignore traffic, but they react to people: Take one step out of a parked car and the whole flock takes off, rising into the air with an explosive whop-whop-whop of wings.
The Vikings, coasting down the Hebrides on their way to Ireland, beached their ships on Islay. Until 1266 the Hebrides formed an independent Norse kingdom, tied more closely to Scandinavia than to mainland Scotland. Their greatest monarch was Somerled, Thane of Argyll, who held power during the middle of the 12th century. Somerled ruled from Islay. So did his descendants, the Macdonalds, who styled themselves Lords of the Isles. James III of Scotland recognized the title in 1476, but in 1493 James IV revoked it and handed Islay over (officially) to the Campbells. The Macdonalds, however, kept possession for more than a century. In 1598, in one of the most famous battles in the history of the islands, they repelled an attack by the Macleans of Mull, who had landed at Loch Gruinart. It was not until 1615 that the Campbells finally took over.
During the 19th century, Scotch whiskey came to Islay -- or, rather, it came out into the open, as the Ilich left their stills and began work in licensed distilleries. Islay's Campbell landlords, enlightened lairds, planned to improve their tenants' lot by moving them into villages and teaching them new trades, such as weaving, fishing and distilling. Of these, distilling was the one that caught on. Islay had spring water, barley for mash and peat to fire the stills. In 1821, Islay produced 29,731 gallons of Scotch; by 1881 there were nine distilleries, producing 1 1/4 million gallons a year.
Eight distilleries are running nowadays, at Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Port Ellen, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila and Bunnahabbainn. Most are concentrated near Port Ellen and Port Askaig; all are on the coast, so that barley mash can be brought in and whiskey casks taken out by boat. They produce each year 5 million gallons of whiskey, enough for 50 million bottles.
Each distillery produces a single-malt whiskey. Most of Islay's single-malts go into blended whiskeys, among them White Horse, Famous Grouse and Islay Mist. In recent years, most distilleries have started keeping back some of their output for bottling under their own labels. The distinctive shape of each distillery's stills gives each single-malt its particular bouquet and flavor; water also plays an important part. Connoisseurs report that single-malts from distilleries south of Bruichladdich have a peatier flavor than those distilled further north.
One of Islay's least peaty whiskeys comes from the distillery at Bunnahabhainn (pronounced Bonna-haven). It is located three miles north of Port Askaig, reachable only by sea or by a narrow road that climbs over hills and twists through farmyards. Bunnahabhainn, founded in 1883, remains a factory town. Alongside its distillery and warehouses stretches a row of workmen's cottages.
Bunnahabhainn's stills are made of heavy polished copper. They are huge round-bottomed funnels, 20 feet high; gleaming and streamlined, each still looks like a giant Brancusi sculpture. The stills rest atop circles of whitewashed firebrick. Until gas and electricity came to Islay, peat was burned here to boil off the whiskey. Catwalks and steep stairs connect the stills with the vats, called washbacks, where the barley mash ferments.
Raw whiskey, after being distilled and mixed with water, is poured into casks that have been seasoned by being used to store sherry. The casks then go to a bonded warehouse to age. Bunnahabhainn ages its single-malt whiskey for 12 years, then ships most of it off to be blended into Cutty Sark.
Celtic Christianity may have come to Islay even before whiskey did. Islay lies halfway between Ireland and Iona. Missionaries and pastors from these early Christian centers left their mark on the island: in the many place names beginning with kil, in the sites labeled "chapel" on the topographic maps and -- most notably -- in the carved slabs and crosses of Islay's churchyards.
One early high cross stands at Kilnave, far along the western shore of Loch Gruinart. Another presides over the gravestones of Kilchoman churchyard, almost within earshot of the island's western shore. Probably the finest cross, however -- and the one in whose presence you feel closest to the people who raised the crosses -- stands at Kildalton Church, on Islay's southeastern coast.
To reach Kildalton, you drive east from Port Ellen. This is the coast that the ferry passes. On your right there is only the sea, on your left only the moor. You pass the distilleries at Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg, dip down along a rocky beach, climb uphill into a woods and pass the gatehouse of Kildalton Castle. Eight miles out, an unpaved track leads off to the right; park here and walk the last quarter mile.
Kildalton Church stands on the brow of a low hill. Roofless and doorless, it has stood open so long that grass has covered its floor from wall to wall. At its eastern end, near the site of the altar, the turf is broken by a row of grave slabs.
Fighting men were buried here. Most of the slabs are incised with claymores, the broadswords of the Highlands. The epitaphs are too weathered to read. Two of the slabs -- one on the ground, one set in a window arch -- depict men in armor. The effigies wear the helmets and coats of mail of the 13th century, but they were probably carved generations later. Fashions changed slowly in the Hebrides, and Ilich stonecutters held to traditional models. One knight rests his head on a pillow, one listens to the patron saint carved at his ear; both are poised to draw their claymores.
Kildalton Church is a lonely place. There is something eerie and holy about it -- something you sense among its mute statues and anonymous stones. This ruined chapel is shared by the quick and the dead. Generations of islanders have prayed here, worshipped here, buried their dead here. Their faith has hallowed the churchyard. It is a place, you feel, where prayer is valid, where visions are granted, where you could call a dead lover's name and she would answer. Not that visitors put these matters to the test -- but if such things happen, Kildalton Church is where they would happen.
Outside the church stands Kildalton Cross. It is taller than a man, and still intact after 1,200 years -- Scotland's only Celtic high cross to survive unbroken.
The cross was carved by a sculptor trained on Iona. He drew on the Bible for inspiration. At the top of the cross, David battles a lion. Lower on the upright, the Virgin and Child sit between two saints. The cross' center is studded with an ornate boss; animal heads snarl on the reverse side. Panels of interlacement stretch along the beams. To fill these spaces, the sculptor borrowed motifs from Irish, Celtic, Pictish and Northumbrian art.
Islay marks where these traditions intersected. Perhaps the sculptor understood that, and chose them for that reason. His work, at Kildalton, stands on another frontier, between the temporal and the timeless. Kildalton Cross is a good place to pause, before you head back to the ferry at Port Ellen -- back from Islay to the everyday world.