AS THE ferry steers its way through the Sound of Islay towards Port Askaig, you are sailing into a whole new world. On the right is Jura, home to 188 people and 5,000 red deer, the place George Orwell came to write 1984; to the left is Islay, which after the neat townships of Arran looks much more the way you imagine the Hebrides should look.
A gang of island children are with me on the ship, returning home after the holidays. "There's the lighthouse, there's the rich man's house, there's granny's car." It's like being in a Katie Morag book as the boat comes into port.
As I drive on to shore, I open all the windows and fill my lungs to test what I've heard from whisky connoisseurs ... and it's true. The air of Islay really does smell like whisky. It could be the musty smell of peat mixed with the salt spray of the sea. Perhaps you can even smell the Angel's Share, the thousands of litres of single malt which breeze through the walls of casks in bonded warehouses.
Islay is the whisky capital of the world, with seven working distilleries producing 25 million litres a year. As any resident will tell you, if the millions of pounds generated in duty stayed on the island, Islay would be the richest place in Britain.
A visit to a distillery is an essential part of any Islay tour and I've decided to visit Bruichladdich (pronounced Brook-laddie), the new kid on the block. The Victorian distillery lay empty for years until whisky enthusiast Mark Reynier came across it on a cycling holiday. He and a group of investors put in a bid to buy the white-washed buildings; the owners refused every year until 2000, when they suddenly decided to sell.
Since then, Bruichladdich has become the enfant terrible of the whisky world, breaking the mould by selling the water of life in squat, clear bottles, with a bright turquoise label inspired by the vivid colour of the sea as it breaks over the white sand across from the distillery. In the shop, the sales girl is carefully straightening the display of 40-year-old, which normally sells at 1,000 a bottle. "We are having a sale," she tells me. "We have put the price down to 999."
Simon Coughlin, one of the directors, takes me on a tour of the cluster of buildings, showing me the still, the vat where the mash is stirred, the new bottling plant. Production hasn't started up again but the place smells like heaven. I stick my head into the huge wooden vat where the mash is stirred and breathe in a heady, honeyed scent.
After scrambling up the steps to a platform around the top of the narrow-topped copper still, I am introduced to the copper taps where the spirit finally makes its appearance. Whisky production varies according to weather, wind and atmospheric pressure and only a small proportion of the distilled liquor is fit to be bottled.
The company has an imaginative approach to marketing. A couple of years ago, they made headlines by revealing the CIA had trained a spy satellite on the distillery in case they started producing chemical weapons. Now the Bruichladdich boys claim to have discovered the island has an identical twin on the other side of the world; the remote region of Islay in Peru has the same 1,800 million-year-old Gneiss rocks and its inhabitants are also known for distilling liquor.
With my head full of bizarre whisky facts and the flavour of ten-year-old malt singing in my tastebuds, I set off on a quick tour around the island. Here, on the west side of horseshoe-shaped Islay, there are few trees and the landscape seems empty compared to lush Arran. Yet Islay has its own windswept beauty with whitewashed cottages, shell sand beaches - beautiful, welcoming and frequently deserted - and plains of marsh and seagrass. People come for simplicity, for walking and wildlife.
On the rocky promontory known as the Rhinns, I look up into the vast sky, which I realise is full of birds, with maybe 50 swooping formations. Unfortunately, the sky is also full of rain, so I head to the Port Charlotte Hotel, my home for the night.
It looks like a village pub, but is furnished like a smart country hotel, with antique furniture, a bookcase which stretches to the ceiling and vases of lilies on the coffee table. It has been owned for the past three years by Graham and Isobel Allison, who are firm converts to island life. They have adorned the hotel with a collection of contemporary Scottish art and encourage local people and musicians to inhabit the hotel bar. Visitors also come to the Port Charlotte for whisky. The bar is stocked with 127 different bottles, all from Islay, apart from a lone bottle of Jura.
The sun is shining again and the sea shines turquoise behind the rocks and lighthouse but the bar is warm and welcoming, so I settle down for the evening. I tuck in to a fantastic Islay steak washed down with a malt. My fellow guests are two enormous Vikings, dressed in full Highland regalia and drinking 10 glasses of malt.
Soon I am joined by strapping local farmers, who look as if they have been wrestling cows and hurling sheep all day. I notice the Islay accent, soft with a definite Gaelic lilt. Gaelic is still strong here, although people insist they learn it in school like a second language. Islay was once the centre of a Gaelic-speaking seafaring kingdom, which held court at Finlaggan, and I have a sense that islanders retain the self-confidence of a people at the centre of their universe. They still say "the mainland is cut off" on bad weather days.
The whisky industry means Islay is used to business visitors and doesn't depend on tourism, which brings a subtle change in the way newcomers are welcomed. After hearing that I have visited the distillery, locals start suggesting which whiskies I should try. Someone buys me a 17-year-old Bowmore, which impresses Allison when he drops back in. "That's the one the managers drink," he says, and immediately ups the stakes by pouring me 20-year-old Bunnahabhain. I could get used to this, I think, as the peaty, seaweedy, strawberry, toffee and coffee flavours chase around my mouth. I dream of tasting more Islay malts - Port Ellen, Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Lagavulin Laphroaig - but, due to the vagaries of ferry timetables, I must head for the mainland at 9am. I retire with a last look at a moonlit sea crashing on to rocks behind the lighthouse, the taste of Islay still tingling in my head.
Next morning, after superb scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, I head to Port Ellen for the early ferry. Driving across Islay, I am almost blinded by sleet, but, as the ferry pulls out, the sky clears and as we drift towards the sunlit hills of Argyll, the view ahead like a postcard.
ISLAND WALKS: GLEANN AN T-SIOB and BEINN AN OIR, JURA
Distance/time: Eight miles; allow four to five hours.
Map reference: OS Landranger 61, Jura and Colonsay, ref for start of walk 543720
Where to park: Don't bother! Use the regular buses from Feolin Pier, after crossing from Islay, to Craighouse, the only village on the island. However, I strongly recommend taking a bicycle; it is a charming, fairly level and quiet road on the ten miles to the bridge over the Corran River, just over three miles beyond Craighouse, and the start of the walk.
Refreshments: Pub/hotel and shop at Craighouse
The walk: When the island of Jura is mentioned, the name of George Orwell may come to mind. He moved to the island in 1946 for health reasons, living at Barnhill in the far north, where he wrote 1984. However, the island is better-known, even to non-hillwalkers, for its most prominent feature, the Paps of Jura. The Paps, with their three obtusely conical peaks rising in the southern part of the island, are instantly recognisable and can be seen on a clear day from as far distant as Ben Nevis, and closer to hand from the mainland to the east. Of navigational importance, the three hills have been long known to seafarers as paps, meaning breasts.
As the middle of the famous trio, Beinn an Oir, at 2575ft or 785m, a Corbett, is the island's highest point. The name means hill of gold. Well, there is no gold in them thar hills, but the likeliest explanation for the name may come from the occurrences of fool's gold, or iron pyrites.
Compared with the lush greenery of neighbouring Islay, the long island of Jura is a sparsely populated, infertile place. Its quartzite hills have big, rough scree slopes and the lower ground is renowned for its rough tussocky nature. However, a shorter and simpler walk for families need not involve an ascent of Beinn an Oir, for a trip just to its base, preceded by a bicycle ride, can be just as rewarding.
Make sure you have sensible boots, for the island is often a wet place and the ground can be rough and muddy.
From the three-arched bridge at map ref 543720, follow the meandering river upstream on its west bank, going north then west into Gleann an t-Siob, passing the loch of the same name en route. The secluded loch is a good turning-point in adverse weather, and the climb to it is less than 200m over two miles. Continue west to the watershed south of Beinn an Oir and north-east of another Pap, Beinn a`Chaolais. The bealach, at almost 400m, gives stunning views to the north-west over Na Garbh-lochanan to the tip of Islay, north of which is Colonsay. It is a wonderful spot.
Islay and Jura: the facts
• HOW TO GET THERE: Regular Calmac ferries from Kennacraig in Kintyre to Port Ellen and Port Askaig on Islay, www.calmac.co.uk; Loganair runs flights from Glasgow to Islay for British Airways, with up to three flights a day in the summer, 0870 8509850, www.ba.com
• POPULATION: Islay 3457, Jura: 188
• MUST SEE: Islay, Jewel of the Hebrides, was the admin-istrative centre for the Lords of the Isles. Finlaggan, court of the Gaelic-speaking kingdom, is one of Scotland's most important archeological sites, with the remains of 28 buildings.
• FAMOUS ISLANDER: George Islay Macneill Robertson, ex- Labour defence secretary and secretary general of Nato, was born in Port Ellen in 1946, the year George Orwell, below, came to live in Jura to write 1984. He took the title Baron Robertson of Port Ellen when he became a lord in 1999.
• STORIES AND LEGENDS: In 1598, Macdonald Lord of the Isles won a bloody battle with the MacLeans of Duart, thanks to the magical intervention of the black elf Du-sith.
• WHERE TO STAY/DRINK: The Port Charlotte Hotel, Port Charlotte, Tel: 01496 850360 , firstname.lastname@example.org
• MORE INFORMATION: Islay Tourist Office, 01496 810254; www.isle-of-islay.com; www.visitscottishheartlands.com; www.islaywoollenmill.co.uk; www.ileach.co.uk;
• DISTILLERIES: Ardbeg 01496 302244; Bowmore, 810441; Bruichladdich 850 221; Bunnahabhain, 840646, Caol Ila, 302760, Lagavulin, 302418; Laphroaig,302418; Kilchoman 850011; Jura 820240
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