Autumn on Islay - Travel Report 2007

Autumn has always been my favourite time of year. I love it when the leaves on the trees show their magnificent colours, the misty mornings, low hanging clouds and the sun casts its long shadows. Typically the time of year to light a fire and enjoy the colder evenings with a dram, preferrably from Islay of course. Also the time of year when summer sometimes lingers on and present us with bright days with a touch of coolness in the air. So far our travels to Islay were in spring/summer and we didn't know what to expect on Islay. As you will find out we were pleasantly surprised during our Autumn trip to the Hebridean Queen.

A lonely tree overlooking the Sound of Islay and the Paps of Jura in Autumn

Saturday 29 September
After a very calm crossing we arrived on Islay, Port Ellen, shortly after 12 o'clock. The first thing you see, or rather not see, when you arrive at Port Ellen is the Islay Hotel. Where the hotel once stood is now a large hole in the ground, filled with water. Only a few walls remain from what once was a thriving hotel and hopefully the new hotel will be a worthy follow up. The weather was clouded and there was no wind and it felt very mild when we drove to Bowmore. The Autumn colours are amazing and so vivid with beautiful shades of brown mixed with purple spots from the heather, a magnificent view and it felt as a warm welcome. Maybe it's the time of year, maybe it's us, but Islay looks brilliant and shows itself from her best side.

Our first stop was Bowmore for our weekend shopping but it seems we were not the only ones in need of groceries. The shop was packed with people and it felt very chaotic, very unlike Islay, but we managed to get this over with. I met Norma Munro in the shop and we had a brief chat, we will probably see her again in the coming week at the brewery. We continue our journey to Port Askaig and catch a glimpse of brian palmer on his bike , yes he was speeding! After a mandatory stop at Loch Indaal where we spot dunlins and a few curlews, we realize the island is extremely peaceful in this time of year. There were only ten cars on the ferry which is rather different from the packed ferries in spring and summer.

Autumn Colours on Islay

We arrived at Persabus at 1.30pm and were sadly not welcomed by the Fletchers, they had to attend a funeral of Jimmy Campbell on Jura. After the unpacking and a cup of tea we drive to Loch Gruinart and Loch Gorm. We had a lovely walk at Saligo Bay and when we returned we saw around 200 geese close to Loch Gorm, the first of many others?

Not long after we arrived back home there is some knocking on the door and a jolly bunch came marching in being Donald, Arra and Roland. After a warm welcome we join them to the main house where we have a good time accompanied with a few drams. They were remarkably happy after a funeral which was a rather special one. Jimmy Hoot died a few days before we came over and he was a good friend of the Fletchers. After a service in Craighouse on Jura they had to drive two miles on the worst road on Jura and carry the coffin for 200 yards to the field, overlooking the sound of Jura, where Jimmy was buried, but before that took place all the men present had to dig the hole for the coffin while a lone piper was playing on a nearby hill. Arra mentioned that a funeral on Jura is better than a wedding on Islay, that probably caused their good mood. It was good to see them all again. When we arrived home we had dinner and fell asleep soon after that.

Sunday 30 September
When we woke up at dawn, seven in the morning, it was still rather dark. We decided to get out of bed and made an early morning walk on the road towards Bunnahabhain passing the Heather House, near Caol Ila. It turned out to be a good decision, the morning light is beautiful and we spotted several roe deer on our way. On the hill above us flew a hen harrier, hunting for an early catch. The clouds remained persistent although there were a few blue spots in the sky. When we returned home we enjoyed a nice breakfast and later we took the car and went for a wonderful walk on the Big Strand. The light was amazing and we walked for miles feeling all alone in the world. After this very rewarding walk we headed for Claggain Bay where we enjoyed our packed lunch and stroll over the beautiful pebble beach. The clouds were breaking and we enjoyed the warm sunshine. Later we went back to our cottage over the High and the Glen Road which is one of our favourite drives on Islay. The sun was still shining and we were rewarded with the most beautiful shades of brown.

Sunrise over the hills at Dunlossit Estate

Monday 1 October
When we woke up and had a look outside we were rewarded with a magnificent view, sunrise over the Paps of Jura. The sky was exploding with colours and we headed out for an early morning walk towards Port Askaig and the Lily Loch. In the distance we heard the stags hurling and their sound echoed between the hills. As the sunrise progressed the sky became even more colourful and it turned out to become one of these extraordinary autumn days.

After breakfast we headed for the Oa and walked up to the monument in perfect conditions. It actually felt like summer but the colours reminded us that it was autumn. No matter where you look, everything looks smashing, like one big postcard. Why didn't anyone tell me that autumn is even better on Islay than spring? On our way back we bought something to eat at the local co-op and enjoyed our lunch on a bench overlooking Leodamas bay in Port Ellen. Back to Bowmore for shopping and a long waited visit to brian at the Ileach. It was good to see him again and because he was very busy I promised to come back later in the week. We headed back to Persabus enjoying the wonderful weather and views. After a coffee and conversation with Arra we went for a walk to Machir Bay and enjoyed a fabulous sunset, the crown on a perfect day!

Manuela enjoying the silence at the Mull of Oa

Which reminds me, I always thought it was a disadvantage to visit Islay later in the year due to the shorter days, but it turned out to be the opposite. Because of these shorter days you easily get the chance to enjoy the beautiful sunrises and sunsets. If you try that in June you hardly get any sleep!

Tuesday 2 October
The weather was grey, somewhat dull and we headed for Islay House Square late in the morning where we met Paul Hathaway from the brewery and Susan Eastwood. Susan makes very fine glass work which she will start to sell very soon in the Online Islay Shop. She explained a bit how she creates all the figures and showed us around in her workshop. It's amazing to see how all these little pieces of glass end up to become seagulls, butterflies, glass hearts and even complete stained windows. After a photo shoot of her shop we headed for the Bridgend Hotel where we met Susan Campbell for a coffee. Susan helped me out with some pages on my website and we have an entertaining chat about Islay which lasts almost one and a half hour. When we finished our coffee Susan showed us the way to the Bridgend graveyard where we had a look at some of the carved stones. It's actually rather sad that this graveyard is no longer taken care off and the carved stones are lying there covered with moss and grass and their relief will certainly fade even more when nothing is to be done about the place. The graveyard itself is not easy to find but if you come from the Bridgend Hotel and cross the bridge and road you will find a track going into the woods on the left at the point where the wall on your left stops. If you follow that track you will find the graveyard after hundred metres on your right. When we said goodbye to Susan we headed for Loch Indaal for a good walk on the beach and later on a coffee at the Port Charlotte Hotel. We had to be back home rather early, Arra was coming over for a cold Grolsch and we had a great time with him.

Wednesday 3 October
When we woke up it was raining and it started to rain even heavier after breakfast. Time for a trip to the Museum of Islay Life but not after a coffee at Debbies. The displays at the museum didn't change much since spring but I was curious to see the other Sanctuary Stone which they keep in the shed near the street. Strangely enough the one that's on display in the museum is of a lesser quality than the one which is still out in the open near Kilchoman.

The weather is becoming a bit brighter and we decide to make a tour over the Rhinns and 'picnic in the car' at Kilchiaran Bay. We headed for Portnahaven after we spotted a cracking Hen Harrier only metres away from the car, brilliant. Portnahaven is such a nice little village and as we stroll along the harbour side we spot several seals curiously observing us as we pass. The church at Portnahaven is really nice and has two entrance doors, one for the people from Portnahaven and the other for the people of Port Wemyss, at least that was the case in the early days. The inside of the church, not divided by the way, is lovely with pink and white colours and looks really beautiful, definitely worth a visit. Since we liked this church so much we decided to visit the other church on the Rhinns as well, they both belong to the same parish and this church is located between Port Charlotte and Bruichladdich. This church is much different but very beautiful as well and there are some lovely stained windows behind the altar. Another church worth visiting!

We arrive in Bowmore around three where I met Mark Unsworth and Neill Scott where they explained the goals from the new Discover Islay group and their future website. I think what they do (marketing Islay as a winter destination) is excellent and will help the island to see more visitors during the wintertime, the enhanced ferry service will probably help as well but they are facing quite a challenge. Islay is not known for its beautiful weather in the winter months, it can be very wet and windy, and attracting people to the island won't be easy. Saying this I realise that there are certain advantages when visiting Islay off season. The Autumn colours and light are amazing, the days are shorter and seeing the spectacular sunrises and sunsets (if any of course) at convenient times is an advantage, there is enough to see and do indoors, wildlife is abundant with the thousands of Geese on Islay during the winter months which are the main reason for a lot of people to visit the island. I very much hope they succeed in their efforts and promised to support them where possible. In the meanwhile the rain started again and we headed home for coffee and fresh baked scones from the local bakery at Bowmore, a treat if you ask me!

Later that day the rain suddenly stopped, the clouds dissappeared and the sun came out to display dramatic skies over the Paps of Jura which weren't visible at the time. The sky exploded with colours and the views towards the Isle of Jura were very dramatic. After the display of stunning colours we headed to Bowmore to enjoy a fantastic dinner, Islay fillet steak with Haggis complimented with a Nerabus Ale from Islay Ales, at the Bowmore Inn. Here we met Nicola Stein, a very talented artist specialised in gothic and celtic drawings who lives on Islay for six months now and I discussed her new website with her which I will complete in the coming months.

Thursday 4 october
We were up at the crack of dawn to watch the stags near the Glen Road, which were not so present as in spring but we managed to spot a few of them followed by a trip to Loch Gruinart for some Geese watching. From what we had heard the Geese are normally arriving on Islay later in October when the northerly winds set in. Since the wind was easterly all week there were no Geese yet. Better luck next time!

In the meanwhile the few clouds had gone and it turned out to become a glorious day with loads of sunshine so we went for a trip to the singing sands behind the Port Ellen lighthouse. The conditions felt almost tropical, beautiful yellow sands, blue water and a lovely blue sky. We spent almost an hour there before heading off to Lagavulin Bay and Dunyveg Castle. It felt like summer and we had a marvellous time.

The Singing Sands at the Oa peninsula

There is a lovely shop in Port Ellen called the Heather Shop, a mandatory stop for Manuela and in the meanwhile I wandered around Port Ellen enjoying the sunshine, the lovely views of the marina and watched the reconstruction of the new Islay Hotel. There was quite some work going on with the foundations but the gap it left is still a strange sight. From there we went to Bruichladdich to enjoy a coffee at Debbies followed by another trip to Loch Gruinart, yes it was a very busy day and we had to be back home early. Arra cooked a fabulous Indian meal which we enjoyed a lot together with Rosemary and Donald. It was a wonderful evening and a great end of a great day.

Friday 5 october
The start of another glorious day, it still feels warm although the wind had picked up a little bit. Good weather for a walk at Sanaigmore Bay where we spot several seals and enjoy the views of Ardnave Island and Colonsay. A bit further north from Sanaigmore Bay is another very beautiful sheltered bay backed by a huge field of pebbles, there must be millions of them there. Very much worth having a look at and a great area to spend some time and we spent almost three hours there. We left around two and headed for home, after a stop at Islay House Square, for our next appointment, we were invited for a coffee by Arra Fletcher's mother at four and we had a lovely time with her. She knows so much about Islay and the old days, time flies and before we knew it we had to leave. We sort of had a busy schedule, which felt very unlike Islay but we loved it. That evening we were invited by Jeremy Hastings and his wife Tink from Islay Birding, brian palmer joined the four of us and we had a great last evening on Islay and a fine farewell dinner with lot's of (cycling)stories from the both of them.

Saturday 6 October
An early start to make the most of our last day which means shopping in Bowmore, the last relaxing sit at Bowmore Square, an ideal place to watch the world (Islay) go by and a detour to Loch Gruinart where we spotted a lot of wildlife, wading birds, seals, geese, buzzards, oystercatchers etc.

Our ferry left at 3.30pm from Port Askaig and in the meanwhile the clouds were covering the hills and drizzle set in. We said goodbye to our friends from Persabus, even met a new one at the ferry, and made enquiries for another three weeks in May next year. Islay draws us back like a magnet and we loved every minute of this fabulous Autumn trip. We will be back soon!

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