Islay Life

Innovative Learning Week has come and gone, and although I returned to university life on Monday and plunged headfirst into the soul-sucking bog of essay writing and irregular-verb-memorizing, I have the shining memories of last week to keep me from despair. Although some fools spent their edu-vacations (copyright Rebecca Gyllenhaal) in Florence or Madrid or other dull, warm locations, I enjoyed my week off in Islay with Comann Ceilteach, the Highland Society, and many of my classmates from Gaelic 1A.

The farmland behind our house
The farmland behind our house in Islay

Islay is the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides, and is primarily known for its eight whisky distilleries (Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain, and Kilchoman), its abundance of seabirds, and its Gaelic history and culture. Islay was once the seat of the Lordship of the Isles, a title that was most often held by members of Clan Donald—who, from Finlaggan, governed the all of the Hebrides and much of the Highlands. Islay was the center of Gaelic culture in Scotland from the 13th to the 15th centuries, and Gaelic is still spoken in Islay today by about 20% of the population. One of the primary purposes of the trip was to expose us Gaelic-learners to a southern dialect that is very different from the northern (predominantly Lewis) Gaelic that we have been taught.

The Paps of Jura from Bowmore

By seven a.m. on Monday morning, all twenty or so of us were napping on the bus en route from Edinburgh to Glasgow. From Glasgow we took another bus to Kennacraig, where, to my extreme excitement, we boarded a ferry, the Finlaggan. Hebrideans and other experienced travellers remarked that the ferry was unusually small, but any boat that serves food and liquor is a floating miracle in my eyes. We docked at Port Askaig and took our third and final bus across the island to Bowmore. The small-town feel of Bowmore and the incredible kindness and generosity of the islanders was made immediately apparent when a local couple offered my housemates and I a lift to our house.

The Finlaggan
The Finlaggan

Our house sat about a mile outside town in the middle of farmland, and two miles from the Gaelic Centre, Ionad Chaluim Chille Ìle. After some initial grumbling, I came to truly love the walk to and from the Gaelic Centre. It was sunny almost every morning (a true miracle), and not only did I enjoy the incredible scenery every day, but I was able to chase chickens and roosters and geese to my hearts content. I even saw a pheasant one morning! My ecstatic reaction probably seemed as silly to my Scottish friends as tourists taking pictures of squirrels back home seems to me.

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We attended Gaelic classes every morning at Ionad Chalium Chille Ìle, and our lovely teacher introduced the 1A class to the mysteries of Islay Gaelic. Islay Gaelic has more in common with Irish than many other dialects (unsurprising, considering you can see Ireland from the southern coast), and therefore contains some different vocabulary and different phonology. ‘Madhainn mhath’ (Mah-dayn Vah) becomes (Meech-een Vey), and glottal stops are introduced in words like ‘athair’ (father) and ‘agam’ (my). After class we were treated to talks in Gaelic about subjects as diverse as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and boat building, and we even had the pleasure of taking tea with native Gaelic speakers on Wednesday afternoon. I tried my best to absorb meaning from everything I heard, but late nights in the pub and my unfamiliarly with Islay Gaelic conspired to leave me absolutely flummoxed at times. Luckily, Gaelic is never unpleasant to listen to, however little you may understand.

Ionad Chalium Chille Ìle
Ionad Chalium Chille Ìle

We took outings across the island in the afternoons, and our first destination was the Museum of Islay Life. The museum is housed within a converted church, relies on local donations to build its collection, and presents a picture of life on Islay from the Mesolithic Era to the present. Being raised in a museum, by a museum curator, I always appreciate the chance to see how other museums display their collections. I was impressed by the wide range of objects they had on display, and by the enormous span of time that such a small museum could cover.

The Museum of Islay Life
The Museum of Islay Life

On Thursday afternoon we took a bus to Port Charlotte on the other side of the bay—because no trip to Islay is complete without whisky, and because Bruichladdich Distillery is the only distillery that agreed to give us a tour in Gaelic. Once again, my Gaelic comprehension skills were not up to the challenge of interpreting much of the tour, but this time at least I can blame it on the incredibly powerful whisky that we were offered right out of the cask. I watched in horror as £30 per-dram whisky poured willy-nilly out of the cask, into our glasses, and onto the ground, but our tour guide didn’t seem bothered. Three drams and one gin and tonic later, I can safely say that a distillery tour on Islay is well worth your money in the end.

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Note the puddle of whisky on the floor.
Note the puddle of whisky on the floor.
The tasting
The tasting

Our free time included potluck dinners, beer pong, sing-a-longs, beach walks, a session at the Bowmore Hotel (which included members of Manran), hours-long conversations about religion, feminism and politics, and my first ever viewing of a rugby game! My impression was pretty much that a lot of men end up in a big pile every few minutes. Apparently this is called a ruck, but I prefer the term cuddle puddle. But the best adventure I had all week, by a wide margin, was a (barefoot) outing to Finlaggan—and I think that excursion deserves a blog post all in itself.

Bowmore Distillery
The Bowmore Distillery

My housemate and I ended the week by attending a service at the famous round church at the top of Main Street in Bowmore. There happened to be a christening on, and while I felt a little like an intruder, it was fun to see the baby ceremonially paraded around the church in her long white dress, and the congregation was incredibly welcoming and friendly. The Sunday afternoon trip home was uneventful (except for a rockslide that forced the bus to take an hour-long diversion), and we were all relieved to finally exit the bus at the end of a long day of travel.

The Round Church
The Round Church

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Unexpected things stick out in my memory, like how the darkness on our street was absolute—the only light shone from Port Charlotte across the bay—and yet, somehow we could find our way home even without torches. Like the wind that nearly blew me over one night but somehow wasn’t cold, the beautiful shells just littering the beaches, a lighthouse shrouded in mist, a herd of cattle on a steep hill.

Lochindaal Lighthouse
Lochindaal Lighthouse

I like to wonder what I’ll remember about Islay five, ten, or twenty years from now, and what I’ll remember about my year in Edinburgh. Usually the scenic ‘postcard’ moments are recorded only in photographs, and the memories that linger in your mind are small and strange, and may have seemed completely insignificant at the time. I like the idea that my mind is continually hoarding up small, strange details, only to surprise me with unexpected memories years later.

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