Four mile trip from Port Ellen to Ardbeg distillery. We’re walking from our cottage northwest of the town, so add another half mile. We start in pastureland bordered by conifer plantations.
Sheep graze outside the window in the morning,
and further on cattle graze and gaze.
Smell of pine resin, manure and sea salt as we stride past the Port Ellen Maltings, which then adds a strong dose of smoking peat covering almost-germinated barley. The ever-smoking stacks supply most of the malt for Islay’s distilleries.
And toward Port Ellen, the largest town on Islay with 810 inhabitants.
As you can tell, sky, clouds and light, shadow change constantly on Islay with winds most often from the west at this time of year, blowing north and south less frequently. Looking up means charting a swirling mass of grey and white, thinning into wisps, disappearing altogether, and then reappearing quickly and with a dense mass.
Off to the right Leodamais Bay stretches, stretching back to the old Norse name meaning “Leòds Harbour.” From the Mesolithic to the remains of Neolithic houses and tombs to Iron Age forts to the Kildalton Cross to Viking raids and settlements to farmers tending stills on the side into the nineteenth century when the tax man discovered them to our walk twenty-five miles from the northern Irish coast, swirling and whirling clouds have watched human time play out in small, but measurable amounts. Let’s find sounds appropriate for such thoughts: David Sylvian’s album Approaching Silence.
Sounds produced by Noah or finger bells or gongs not only announce themselves but ripple and alter other sounds around them. Bells also announce what’s coming into the world. Sometimes the sacred, sometimes a god, sometimes Swedes walking the coast. Bells and gongs amidst a wash of electronics, guitars, samplers and synths in “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.” Fits my mood, fits the island.
The road stretches ahead.
Cows watch our passing.
Another road leads down to the sea.
Old stones assembled into lines dividing Islay into a chess board . . . watch us.
We arrive at the doorstep of the Lagavulin distillery, but that is not our destination today. I’ll visit it’s wonderfully smoked and peated water on July 4. Now, we continue to walk toward Ardbeg, which is just a little further down the road.
Wool in the sky, wool on the land. Islay presents itself in tolling bell sounds of white fleece against one thousand different shades of blue and black, one thousand different hues of green stimulating the earth to grow; ribs of old lava rock cresting rises and hills, rock broken into stones and slabs and stacked grey on grey. All the while, the sheep seem indifferent to my thoughts turning to one of my favorite Ardbeg spirits, the Corryvrekan, which as the Ardbeg site points out is the name of the famous whirlpool that lies to the north of Islay, where only the bravest souls dare to venture. I think of lines from Robin Roberston’s wonderful poem of the same name as the whirlpool and the malt.
Seen from above, the tidal race is a long army moving fast
across a plain as flat and grey as a shield of polished steel,
to reach, at the end, the terrible turbulence of battle.
A blue stream turned to a gutter of broken water:
water that’s stood its ground, churning; sea
kept back and held in standing waves:
walls of water, each as tall as a church door,
endlessly breaking on the same point—
each wave swallowing its own form
and returning, re-making itself, chained there
on its own wheel, turning black to white to black.
And then the Ardbeg distillery appears at the bottom of a walk, a bridge and a turn. Like a gong, like a bell, like a whirlpool of clouds and water changing and changing again into grass and stones, sheep and blue.
We step past the distillery before going in, and view land’s end and the beginning of the fermenting and ever distilling Atlantic Ocean. I stir words from the Icelandic farmer, poet and warrior Egill Skallagrímsson who loves his drink and speaks the following verse as he quaffs and quaffs and quaffs again. The translation comes from the Penguin edition of The Sagas of Icelanders.
Drink every toast down,
though the rider of the waves
brings brimful horns often
to the shaper of verse.
I will leave no drop
of malt-sea, even if the maker
of sword-play brings me
horns until morning.
We could lose ourselves in the blue sky turning white turning dark grey turning metallic water, but it’s time for walking the labyrinth of a distillery and sipping the water of life. Sláinte!