Mythic history and a bit of the wild side on Scotland’s Isle of Islay

The stunning sea view from the clifftops of the Mull of Oa, on Scotland's Isle of IslayIslay is an island of in-between mythicality. Dangling on the end of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, it escapes the overwhelming tourism of Skye but has less edge-of-the-world freshness and excitement of an Outer Hebridean island like Barra or deserted Mingulay (see my essay on Barra here).

The peace of all these Scottish isles can’t be explained by mere physical description: soothing sparkles of sea waves, green and brown hills that look as if they were designed by the harmony-loving architects of Ancient Greece. There is a mythic quality to these far-flung islands, and it’s not just the leftover fragrance of Celts and druids and the lonesome, wind-lashed Christian missionaries of centuries past, nor the fierce loyalties and clashes that run in the lifeblood of warring clans. It’s buried deeper than that; it seems to ooze out with the peat bogs and deceptively firm-looking heather and gorse-crazed hills.

Stone houses from an almost forgotten ancient history on Scotland's Isle of IslayIslay is one of the most ideal Scottish islands on which to touch this past. While it maintains a strong grip on modern day tourist attractions like whisky distilling and birdwatching, the comfortable hotels and seaside teahouses seem to have little impact on the true spirit of the island—both that ill-defined mythic quality and the irrefutable evidence of its long and noble history: in the center of the island you can walk past a windswept tourist cabin down a sodden path to Loch Finlaggan. The small lake laps the edges of two islands-within-Isle, once the royal seat of MacDonald, Lord of the Isles. A slap in the face of modern slapdash construction, you can touch the still-solid walls of stone buildings that comprised the MacDonald clan’s 14th-century rule over the Hebrides. Present-day Islay might be known for whisky and walking, but these ruins remind the visitor that its residents once ruled an island empire reaching even to parts of Ireland.

Bowmore, one of the many single-malt whisky distilleries on Scotland's Isle of IslayNow, though, people do come for the whisky and the walking. And the birds. Islay is host to two world-famous bird sanctuaries, and seriously excellent single-malt whisky—more distilleries than you could shake a stick at, including several of my favorites: Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Caol Ila, and Bowmore; and some I hadn’t heard of, like Bruichladdich, which of course you have to try because its unpronounceable name just sounds so cool.

It is, however, the tremendous natural beauty and open space that keep drawing me back to Scotland. Islay is one of the most satisfying places I’ve ever been to in that respect, one I’d like to return to regularly. If I could believe in a soul, I’ve left mine in the Hebrides.

When we visited Islay, my husband, in-laws and I took a three-mile walk through the Mull of Oa, the achingly beautiful tip of Islay. A huge bird sanctuary run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Mull of Oa is so perfect it would be a crime to ever see it developed. It’s like the elaborate hairstyles and headdresses on the young, beautiful girls in an Elizabeth Gaskell period drama: so lovely it makes you want to laugh with joy.

Highland cow on Islay's Mull of OaWe stood on the edge of cliffs so high I wouldn’t care to guess their measurements. Highland cows munched lazily close to the edge, having free rein around a seemingly purposeless fence. Maybe it was to keep the humans back.

“In America,” I said, “you’d never be able to do this,” referring to the unguarded cliff edge, how we were just as free as the cows to tip ourselves over into the sea if we felt like it. My in-laws nodded. It was a continuation of our never-ending argument: was America or Britain a better place to live? I for Queen (and health care and tea) and their country, they for the open friendliness of my countrymen, its childlike patriotic loyalty and vast feeling of spaciousness. When driving around the farmlands of upstate New York, where their son and I live, my father-in-law was fond of saying, “Our country’s rubbish compared to this, isn’t it, love?” to his wife.

The view from the Isle of Islay to the Isle of JuraOpen space is one of America’s greatest attractions, but Scotland has it beat by hundreds of thousands of acres. There is something about Scotland’s open places that satisfies like a glass of pure, cool water. Every time I come here, I feel like there can be no strife, no injustice in a place where nature directs the flow of life quite so fully.

But this beauty was built and preserved on the back of some of the world’s most heartless injustices: the Highland Clearances, which sent tens of thousands of poor tenants to the wilds of Canada to make room, for the most part, for much more cost-effective sheep. The natural beauty of so much of Scotland has been saved from development not through environmental awareness or civic mindedness, but mostly through the greed of its absentee landowners. It’s hard for me sometimes to reconcile the deep love I have for this place with my basic socialist nature.

Socialism, though, smacks so often of bland, ugly utilitarianism. Give me a little drama, a little bit of the wild. Even when having a staid snack of tea and scones and clotted cream in a paisley-decorated dining room, the fierce history of centuries past are something you breathe in the air.

Its very location seemed to reaffirm Islay’s dedication to living a little outside the rules: myth erupted on the return trip to the mainland, as our little plane flew over the Corryvreckan Whirlpool in full churn. Ten kilometers across—nearly five miles, white rimmed and dark-centered, one of the most dangerous spots of water to sail in the entire world, it seemed to shout eternal independence from man’s machinations, nature’s whitewater wild ride.

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