Maureen and I got back from a week on Islay and Jura yesterday. We've just finished sorting and are about to do some (extra) backups of the 3,444 photographs we brought back with us, the survivors of rather more than 12,000 we took during a week that defied the weather forecasts and gave us almost everything we wanted in sunshine.
We were due on the 1pm ferry from Kennacraig last Saturday and arrived in Tarbert in good time to photograph the place in sunlight and enjoy a late (and excellent) breakfast before heading to the ferry terminus. The MV Finlaggan duly arrived, a week after she entered service. She's a nice ship, with comfortable passenger areas and plenty of outside deck space including some at the front which is accessible in good weather. The bridge was, as you'd expect on a new ship, state of the art. The wings project out beyond the side of the ship and offer great views, including directly downwards through a viewing panel in the floor which I only noticed when I was standing on it!
Port Askaig has changed since our last visit in 2002: new ferry facilities and, apparently, the removal of an entire hillside behind the village for new holding areas for traffic for the ferry. We spent some time there before moving on to Port Charlotte, where we were staying. We photographed Port Charlotte in sunshine, before deciding to make the best of the weather and moving round Loch Indall to photograph Bowmore and Bowmore Church. There followed the first of a series of late evenings sorting lots of images over a bottle of wine, typically discarding between two thirds and three quarters (we usually take in twos for external photos to counter stray birds, cars, pedestrians, and horizons, and in threes for internal photos - or up to fives in really dark places like bonded warehouses to ensure a sharp set). The Nikon D300s are superb cameras which can be set up to perform really well in low light.
Sunday dawned bright and sunny, but with a deteriorating forecast, so we headed out early to get morning shots of Port Charlotte, then Portnahaven and its church and Port Wemyss. We had visits to photograph all the distilleries except Caol Ila (which is currently undergoing major upgrade) booked for later in the week so decided to capitalise on the good weather by getting sets of exterior images of as many distilleries as possible. The morning light was perfect on Bruichladdich, and then back to Bowmore to photograph the distillery with the sun in the right place. Stopping to photograph the exterior of the airport, we then trekked on to capture Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg exteriors in perfect light. Kildalton, 6 miles beyond Ardbeg, is home to magnificent early crosses and grave slabs and a ruined church. Thereafter we lost the light as the cloud rolled in, so after an excellent lunch in the cafe at Ardbeg Distillery (busy, but cannot be recommended highly enough) spent the day scoping out other targets for later in the week: and sorting the day's pictures.
Monday morning dawned grey, and we made the first of the pre-planned distillery visits, to Bowmore: a super distillery made all the better by still having its traditional floor maltings. The weather forecast seemed better for the north of the island (the differences in weather between one part of a relatively small island and another was a recurring theme throughout the week) so we headed round that way, and photographed the RSPB centre and reserve at Loch Gruinart, and the ruined church and cross overlooking the loch at Kilnave: still in cloud, but better than not at all. Further west we hit the blue sky again, and photographed the scary ruined church, the military cemetry and the two standing (one only just standing) crosses at Kilchoman, before photographing Kilchoman Distillery, the new kid on the block and the only distillery in Scotland to do absolutely everything from growing (some of) the barley it uses to bottling the final product on site. As the light was better we then returned to the chapel at Kilnave and the RSPB reserve, to get sunnier pictures, before pressing on to photograph Bridgend and then Port Ellen in weather that meant increasing waits for clouds to clear. Then back to Port Charlotte to sort over 2,000 pictures from the day and drink more wine.
On Tuesday we were due at the Isle of Jura Distillery at 9am to photograph it, and later had a tour of the island booked with "Alex the Bus". Heavy black clouds attended our trip to Port Askaig, and the ferry tip to Jura, but as we descended into Craighouse the skies cleared and we got a beautiful set of pictures of the village, and the exterior of the distillery, before photographing the interior and the accommodation they have. The island tour had been booked for us by Whyte & Mackay, and was magnificent, allowing an insight into the island we'd have never achieved on our own and lots of pictures of the various tiny settements up the island's only road. A late lunch in Craighouse was followed by a trip back up the island under our own steam to enjoy "tea on the beach" at Inverlussa and to collect some pictures we'd missed earlier. Then back to Islay via Caol Ila Distillery to confirm it really was a building site, and collect some exterior pictures.
Wednesday dawned dull and grey, proving our Sunday policy of photographing the exterior of distilleries was a good one, as we were due at Bruichladdich to photograph the distillery. The still room there is outstandingly attractive, and has a unique feature in the form of a gin still. The weather was such that interiors were still the way to go, so we photographed Islay Ales, the island's brewery at Bridgend, before taking in the interior of St Kieran's church near Port Charlotte, the excellent Museum of Islay Life in Port Charlotte and the Islay Natural History Trust Vistor Centre.
By now the weather was looking more promising in the west so we headed down to Portnahaven, for a cafe that turned out to be closed on Wednesdays, then a trip round the north coast to Kilchiaran to photograph the ruined church with its gravelsabs. The weather was still improving, so we returned to Port Charlotte for exteriors of the musuems and church, then to Bridgend for more of the village, the exterior of the brewery, and shots of Islay House from the gardens there. By now the weather was looking much better to the south as well, so we moved on to Port Ellen for a properly sunny set of pictures of the island's largest settlement.
Thursday was due to be a fairly full day, with photographic visits booked to the three southern distilleries. It turned out to be another fine day, and we got exterior pictures of the aiport en route, with one of the crash trucks obligingly testing his foam jet for the camera; and then exteriors of the parish church in Port Ellen.
At Lagavulin Distillery we were shown the elements of the production process by the stillman, which gave a great insight into some of the unusual aspects (including seals resting on the rocks in the bay). Ardbeg put on a great tour which again allowed a super set of pictures to be taken, including cask rolling in the bonded warehouse. The timing conveniently allowed us to lunch again at Ardbeg, and it was just as good the second time around. It's a close run thing, but Ardbeg is in my book the prettiest distillery, coming as it does complete with a convenient grassy outcrop on the coastal side which is perfect for taking photographs.
Early afternoon found us at Laphroaig Distillery, the third we had visited on the island (out of a total of six in Scotland as a whole) which still has floor maltings and kilns. And the smoke from the pagodas and all pervasive smell of peat left you in no doubt that the kilns were indeed in operation. The smoking floor and neighbouring drying rooms must be hellish places to work, but fine if you are only sticking your head in for a few photographs while holding your breath! The still room at Laphroaig is glass fronted and truly epic in scale: and perfect for photography. When we said that we were "Friends of Laphroag" (having joined back in 2000) we were given our certificates, our miniatures in lieu of rent for the square foot we each (nominally) own of a field near the distillery, and shown where our entries are in the printed registers they hold of friends (the first couple of hundred thousand, anyway: membership is now into the millions, a stroke of marketing genius).
Back in Port Ellen we photographed the interior of the parish church before heading out the the Mull of Oa, via the ruined chapel and grave slabs at Kilnaughton. The cloud was now setting in, and as we walked the mile from the car park to the American Monument on the cliffs at the western tip it started to rain. We sheltered next to the monument until a gap in the weather arrived, took our photographs, and headed back to the car.
Friday dawned grey and wet. We headed out to our last distillery, Bunnahabhain. En route we took some damp exteriors of Kilmeny Church, a well preserved Telford church. Sadly it was locked (the only locked church we encountered on the islands) both then and later when we returned, so we pressed on via a dank Finlaggan to the distillery. Bunnahabhain is very different in character to most of the other Islay distilleries, deliberately blending into its remote site by staying grey rather than going for overall whitewash. It is a great place to visit. The stillroom is the oddest we have seen anywhere, with production elements seemingly stacked up a hillside rather than laid out on a level. The rain persisted, so exterior photographs were necessarily limited.
A set of interior pictures of the Finlaggan visitor centre was next, and then we headed south into slightly better weather. Another lunch at Ardbeg while we considered our options given the weather and what we still had to do. A stop at Islay Airport was next, for interior photographs, including the control tower, whose balcony is accessed by a 2ft squre hatch that defies dignity but offers great views. We then headed back to Finlaggan, to get a set of exterior photographs of the island whatever the weather. In the event we got some grey dry shots before the rain returned. Finlaggan was for me a Stonehenage moment. When I first visited Stonehenge in the 1970s my overwhelming reaction was "is this it?" The visitor centre at Finlaggan is superb, but the island itself is underwhelming, not helped by the fine graveslabs there being displayed under flat perspex which means visitors see little other than reflections of the sky. We retreated to the car in the face of an increasingly ferocious storm to dry the cameras and ourselves (in that order).
Saturday saw our return to the mainland, sad to be leaving Islay and, especially, Jura. We were on the 9.45 ferry and had planned a very early start to allow us to photograph the island at Finlaggan again if the weather was any good. It wasn't, so after a slightly less early start, we visited Bunnahabhain once more, in rain so heavy the photographs were taken out of the car window to keep the camera reasonably dry.
MV Finlaggan had hit the news during with week when its bow doors had failed to operate, causing a major delay at Kennacraig on Tuesday. The bow doors were still not operating on Saturday, which allowed us to participate in the interesting operation of turning within the car deck, with the last few vehicles reversing onto the ferry. Management by the ship's crew of what must have been a difficult process given some drivers' reversing skills was really good.
Our week on Islay and Jura was magnificent and unforgettable. Everyone was incredibly friendly and everyone went above and beyond the call of duty to help us get the photographs we were after. A super place, especially but not only if you like distilleries.