Lesley Riddoch: Whisky leaves a bitter taste for Islay

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New distilleries and an increase in tourism has left the island’s transport infrastructure struggling, writes Lesley Riddoch.

Never mind the uncertainty of Brexit, Scotland’s whisky isle is booming. New distilleries are springing up across Islay, the local golf course has had a multi-million pound re-design and the extension of ferry fare reductions to Islay routes has boosted tourism and housing-related construction.

Whisky-related development has put an increasingly large strain on Islay's inadequate road and sea links. Picture: Getty

Whisky-related development has put an increasingly large strain on Islay's inadequate road and sea links. Picture: Getty

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Whisky-related development hasn’t boosted the island’s population but it has put a massive strain on Islay’s creaking transport infrastructure.

So is it time for islanders to establish a fund extracting some community benefit from the amber fluid in the same way Shetland took big cash from the oil industry to mitigate its impact on island life? And will the idea even get airtime at a meeting of government, industry, shipping and transport leaders next week arranged by local MP Brendan O’Hara?

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There’s no doubt Islay whisky has fully recovered from the dip in the 80s, which saw many distilleries mothballed. A new distillery, Ardnahoe, will open shortly, another is planned near Port Ellen and the existing distillery there is being virtually rebuilt at an estimated cost of £20m. Ardbeg and Kilchoman are doubling the number of stills and Bruichladdich has built a massive new warehouse complex.

Botanist Gin is also finished there. Meanwhile, a rum distillery is planned and producing Islay vodka must surely be just around the corner.

Locals are generally grateful for the relatively high wage jobs that whisky brings, but with automation, a modern distillery can run full tilt with just five employees. Whisky-related tourism looks set to grow, but that’s been at the direct cost of housing for local people at Bunnahabhain, whose £11m infrastructure programme to boost visitor numbers will be achieved by demolishing around a dozen local houses. Eight cottages will be upgraded to luxury status, new beach huts will be available for overnight stays and yacht moorings will be installed in the bay.

Great for tourists – bad for locals. It’s a dominant pattern on Islay.

Rural roads across Scotland are in a terrible state thanks to a bitterly cold winter and council cuts in road maintenance and B-road gritting. But few other islands also carry the fleet of heavy, articulated trailers that come with Islay’s whisky trade. The undulating single-track, peat-bog roads don’t just carry distilled alcohol.

Waste-water is also carried from one end of the island to the other where stronger sea currents mean safer dispersal. Draff – a by-product used for animal feed – is also driven about and shipped off. Incoming supplies of oil and barley are landed by sea but then distributed round the island in heavy tankers weighing around 44 tonnes apiece. If alcohol production looks set to double, the damage to island roads will only increase while the roads budget for Argyll and Bute is shrinking.

Some locals want the Scottish Government to upgrade the road between Islay’s ports to trunk status, making maintenance a Scottish Government rather than a council responsibility. Others argue a multi-million pound community benefit fund should be established by the UK government from its considerable excise duty income.

Others say whisky, like oil, should contribute directly to local coffers.

The big snag, of course, is that unlike Shetland, Islay has no local council. Indeed a vexed point for locals is that their three councillors must also represent Jura, Colonsay and part of the mainland – an utterly impossible task.

Anywhere else on mainland Europe, an island like Islay would have its own municipal council calling the shots, deciding on planning permission, setting and collecting rents and rates and tackling threats to island stability like Argyll and Bute’s proposed closure of the island’s only old folks’ home. Anywhere else too, near total control over land, land use and community development by a couple of large landed estates would also be a thing of the feudal past. On Islay though, islanders must service the ambitious plans of millionaires like Australian hedge-fund manager Greg Coffey, transforming his estate on neighbouring Jura into a luxury and exclusive golfer’s paradise.

No-one dares question these wealthy men – or criticise public agencies like Cal Mac too openly.

Late last week, tourism businesses, hauliers and mainland visitors gearing up for Easter learned that non-core sailings on Islay’s second ferry have been cancelled again this Good Friday for “operational reasons.” According to locals, sailings at this vital start of the tourist season are cancelled almost every year, because Islay’s second ferry isn’t a subsidy-backed core service but an optional extra, used to plug gaps elsewhere in the ferry network. It looks like that has happened again this weekend.

But why is Cal Mac’s maintenance schedule not more robust? It’s a question every Ileach would love to ask the company, but without the clout of a council it’s impossible for islanders to hold operators of this lifeline service to account.

So what will happen this weekend? Locals will do what they always do – check the online site Shipfinder to find the whereabouts of ferries that might provide extra sailings.

Visitors will probably have their holiday plans up in the air till some solution is cobbled together later this week.

But that’s just one weekend’s disruption. Constant and unpredictable non-appearances by the second ferry mean whisky trailers and local hauliers book up the core, subsidised sailings instead, squeezing out tourists and locals.

As a result Ileachs (like islanders elsewhere) end up on standby, often leaving days ahead of holiday flights and hospital appointments to make sure they can get off the island.

A new second ferry for Islay should arrive in 2028 and a “cast-off” ferry may be available by 2020 as new ferries are built for other isles. But it’s possible even that may not satisfy demand. Islay is basically trying to handle a massive whisky freight operation on a totally inadequate public ferry service.

Maybe the answer is that whisky companies should charter their own freight boat.

Certainly these are problems of success – but they are problems nonetheless. Will any be discussed at the forthcoming summit on the island’s future? Two community councillors will attend but islanders are annoyed they’ve been asked to email questions instead of discussing issues with the great and good face to face.

It would be a smart move to include some public participation – because no matter how well-intentioned the mainland politicians, the days of deciding the future for but not with local people are surely over.