Today would be unlike any other day of the trip so far, and it began with us waking up on Islay for the last time. We were away to another island, the third and final one of the journey – Jura, the island of solitude, deer, and slightly naughty hills.
Taking the ferry from Port Askaig to Jura is an adventure in itself. I thought the ferry from Arran to Kintyre was small, but I hadn’t seen the “Eilean Dhiura” yet. The tiny boat looks like a slightly more cheerful version of the beach landing craft from the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, and offers about the same chance of a cooked breakfast or gift shop (ie. none), but handles the rapid waters of the Islay Sound just fine. It can carry just a handful of vehicles, so pray there’s no grain lorry waiting in the queue ahead of you when you show up or you’ll be waiting for the next one.
There’s only one settlement of any size on Jura, the village at Craighouse, and it’s about a 15 minute drive from the ferry landing. You’re almost guaranteed to see your first deer before the whitewashed buildings of the hotel and distillery come into view. The journey from the ferry is mostly wild heathland, but at the time of our visit a golf course was under construction close to the entrance to the village. Even if it’s finished by now, I wouldn’t get your hopes up for a quick round. Apparently it’s the private playground of an Australian tycoon. What’s deer for “fore”?
The distillery that brought us here stands in the middle of the village, across the road from the sea. We’d become a bit more acquainted with said sea in a few moments, but first we set off to find our accommodation. It was here that Andrew dropped a bomb – some of us were staying at the Jura Lodge.
The Lodge is actually the old distillery manager’s house, now converted to an uber-posh set of guest rooms. It’s the kind of place that shows up in “places to stay before you die” lists on slick lifestyle websites. Four themed guest rooms are on the second floor, while the top floor is decorated as an eccentric but luxurious hunting lodge, complete with suit of armour. A large open kitchen stocked with plenty of the local whisky caps it all off. The building is also allegedly haunted, and long-time Jura icon Willie Tait shared his own ghostly experience from the room I slept in when I met him earlier this year. I’ve been lucky enough to stay in some very nice places around the world, but it’ll be a long time before I stay anywhere as memorable as the Lodge again.
(I find it necessary at this point to explain that if you go looking up the Lodge on Google, this is not the same Jura Lodge I describe above. Just in case there’s any confusion.)
After dropping off the bags at the Lodge, we made our way down to the dock to take a much-anticipated boat trip up to the Corryvreckan whirlpool off the north coast of the island. With merry cries of “no bathrooms for the next four hours!” ringing in our ears (and certain other parts) we boarded the small boat and sailed away up the coast.
This trip was one of the highlights of the week for me. The weather was beautiful, the ocean mostly calm, and the scenery and wildlife unmatched. Our skipper was Nicol MacKinnon, who runs a boating company out of Islay, and it turns out is a kind of celebrity. I’ve seen him on TV shows about the islands at least three times since I returned home. We were also lucky to be in the company of Rachel MacNeill, an expert on Islay and Jura and their whiskies. Rachel runs the sites Whisky For Girls and Wild and Magic Islay offering local tours and whisky education, and at the time of our trip was working with the Jura distillery to revamp their visitor centre.
Under Nicol’s able seamanship we got close to seals, wild goats, sea eagles, The Flying Dutchman, and the whirlpool itself. Er, yes, The Flying Dutchman. Cast your mind back to episode two of this little travelogue (if you can, it was seven months ago after all)… remember the sailing ship we saw in Campbeltown harbour? Same boat! It turns out that every year a bunch of whisky-crazed Dutch people sign up for a tall-ship tour of western Scotland and its many distilleries, and we’d more or less been following them around since Campbeltown.
When we saw them hove into view off Jura, Nicol took us right up alongside, and we shared many cheery waves and befuddled looks as apparently nobody spoke anybody else’s language. But of course we all speak the shared language of WHISKY and so no wars were accidentally started or anything unfortunate like that. As far as I know, anyway.
The Corryvreckan exists thanks to an undersea spur of rock in the middle of a fast-moving strait of water between Jura and a small island called Scarba to the north. The spur splits the current as it comes through at speed, causing an unpredictable disturbance at the surface. It’s easily visible on modern sonar displays that show the seabed in 3D, like the one on Nicol’s boat.
The whirlpool’s intensity is dependent on the particular state of the tides and so you never know quite what you’re going to get. On the day of our visit, it was quiet to the point of near-invisibility which was a little disappointing, but Andrew assured us he doesn’t control the ocean currents so I reluctantly gave him a pass. But what I’d never heard about is that just around to the northern side of Scarba is a similar narrow strait, with really strange currents of its own, which were much more active that day. It’s very cool and a little bit eerie to watch an apparently open stretch of water have parts running in different directions.
By the time we arrived back on dry land, we’d been fed with some tasty packed lunches provided by the single restaurant on the island, The Antlers (the deer theme again!), and we were shown around the distillery by Fiona. It was interesting to hear first-hand the history of the distillery and the effect that the whisky industry has had on this island and its tiny population of 180 people.
We didn’t have far to go for the tasting that followed the tour, as it was in the lounge back in the Lodge just across the distillery yard. Here Rachel took the reins and guided us through a stellar tasting, one of my favourites of the whole week. A complete list of what we tried:
- The 12 year old “Elixir”
- The 16 year old “Diurach’s Own”
- The peated “Prophecy”
- The 21 year old
- The 1977 “Juar” release
- “Water” from the Elements series
- Mountain of the Sound, one of the Paps releases from the 2009 Feis Ile
- And finally, the 2014 Feis Ile release, Tastival
A pretty incredible lineup with some real rarities. The 1977 and the Mountain of the Sound were my personal highlights, but I was happy with the quality throughout the range. Jura doesn’t seem to have the greatest reputation among some whisky enthusiasts, but based on this showing they can release a dram as good as anyone else. It’s definitely a different style of whisky to the Islay peat monsters from across the Sound, but adjust your expectations and when you visit I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
A huge thank-you goes to Rachel for hosting us. Her knowledge and passion for the whisky, the islands and the local people was evident, and she was incredibly generous in sharing that with us. It was a privilege to meet and spend time with her, and if you’re planning a trip to Islay I’d highly recommend checking out her tours to gain the benefit of her experience and connections. And I guarantee you’ll have a laugh too!
A raucous dinner at the Antlers finished off our day on Jura. It wasn’t raucous until we got there. I hope they let us come back!
And that’s almost it. The next morning, after a few hours sleep in my haunted bedroom, we got up at some ridiculous hour to catch the ferry back to Port Askaig, and then from Port Askaig back to the mainland. From there we drove to Auchentoshan near Glasgow for one final distillery tour, and then onto Edinburgh for a fantastic dinner and guided tasting at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Vaults. Exhausted from the week’s adventures, we said our goodbyes at the hotel – and just like that, the trip was over.
But what a trip! Hopefully you can tell, if you’ve followed the reports from the beginning, how great of a time it was. I’ve been asked a few times now if I’d go on a guided tour like this again. I’m somebody who organizes his own trips without a travel agent, is comfortable traveling solo, and has been to Scotland on whisky-themed journeys both before and since this trip. And my answer would be a definite “yes”! Some of the accommodation, distillery visits, and tastings were way beyond what you could organize yourself, without inside connections, and maybe the economy of scale that’s in operation when eight whisky nuts go traveling together. It was worth it just for that, but the company and laughter is what really made it so enjoyable.
My thanks go out to Andrew, who organized and ran the whole thing so ably, and who selflessly passed up so many great drams while driving us around; and to my fellow travelers Rob, Colin, Clayton, Lainey, Art, and Josee, who made the whole trip so enjoyable with their good humour and great company. Hey guys, here’s an idea – let’s do this all over again!
All Islay 2014 posts: