email a friend iconprinter friendly iconAdventure Travel in Scotland
Page [ 5 ] of 6

Later that afternoon Dave Protherough, the chairman of the Islay Kayaking Club, met us at Bunnahabhain. He had agreed to shuttle us to Islay’s south shore, which has a number of paddle-up distilleries. We loaded our boats onto his trailer and motored south into the island’s interior. Islay is often called the Queen of the Hebrides, a rolling Scottish counterpart to Martha’s Vineyard in its balance of sea views, woods, farmland, and pasture. I asked Protherough if there were any historical sites on our route across Islay. It was like asking if there were any famous battlefields near Waterloo. Protherough hit the brakes sharply and turned onto a narrow lane. "Sure," he said. "This will take us to Finlaggan, the seat of the Lord of the Isles."

Finlaggan was the center of power for the self-declared Lords of the Isles, naval warlords of mixed Norse and Gaelic descent who ruled the western islands in the 14th and 15th centuries. At their height, the Lords exerted their influence deep into western Scotland and were on a political par with the kings of Scotland and England. Trundling over the moors, we soon arrived at a small inland loch with two small islands in its center. To the west, beyond the loch, lay woodland. We crossed a wooden footbridge from the shore and explored the stone ruins on the larger of the two islands, a cluster of low stone walls, medieval carvings, and a roofless chapel. The surviving ruins of Finlaggan are few, but the setting is deeply evocative, and for historians there are few sites in the Hebrides of more significance.

Continuing on from Finlaggan, we reached the south side of Islay by dusk and checked in to a small waterfront hotel in the town of Bruichladdich called An Taigh-Osda. Elegant and spotless, more contemporary than historic with its plain-hewn white facade, the hotel overlooks a broad bay in sight of two other distilleries. Proprietor Paul Graham joined us for drinks in the sitting room and poured me a locally brewed peat-flavored ale before a dinner of spring rolls made with local crab and langoustine, followed by a seafood platter with half a lobster, mussels, crab, oysters, scallops, smoked salmon, and baby clams. On my last trip to Scotland, my companions had delighted in haggis for breakfast and fish and chips for dinner, and it seemed the only fresh food eaten in the country was the parsley garnish atop a shepherd’s pie. Not so in the Hebrides. Food is taken as a point of distinction among islanders. Judging from the fare alone, we might have been on the coast of France.

The next day after a slow morning ashore, we entered the water in the town harbor of Port Ellen, in the middle of Islay’s southern coast. Our first goal was the Laphroaig distillery, about two miles to the east. This coast was softer, less barren, and far more inhabited than the western side of Jura; beyond rocky coves and a lattice of tiny islands lay forested hills and farms. The wildlife, as on Jura, was abundant and varied. In two hours we saw two otters out fishing, scores of seals, and seabirds beyond counting, including oystercatchers, shags, razorbills, and guillemots.

Endlessly cheerful and astutely observant, Hammock is as fine a teacher and guide as he is a technical paddler. I asked him what it was that had kept him so engaged for so long. "There’s no one telling you what you can and cannot do," he said, "and on this vast medium of sea and rivers and lakes you can go exactly where you want to go.

Page [ 5 ] of 6
Join the discussion

National Geographic Adventure is pleased to provide this opportunity for you to share your comments about this article. Thanks for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Recent Comments
  • I receive your magazine monthly and I just love the articles, but this one was awesome! Only wish i…
Read All »