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Scotland's Hebrides Islands, off its west coast, offer a wonderful range of different sights and experiences.

Our Scotland's Islands and Highlands Tour takes you 8 islands (via 11 ferry crossings and a steam train ride), giving you a great time seeing much of the Inner and Outer Hebrides as well as time in the Highlands.

Here is one person's account of her experiences on our 2010 tour.

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Scotland's Islands & Highlands Tour Diary

Day 2 :  Campbeltown to Bowmore on Islay

The 'Calmac' ferry approaching Port Askaig, with the Paps of Jura in the background.

After an optional tour down to the bottom of the peninsula and with views over to Ireland, we traveled up again to take our first ferry, over to the Isle of Islay, where we visited a distillery before settling in to our hotel for the next two nights.

Part of an 11 day/page trip diary - click the links on the right hand side for the other days in this diary.



Jeanette and her husband Ken were on our 2010 Scotland's Islands and Highlands Tour, and Jeanette kept a detailed day by day diary of the tour.

She has very graciously allowed it to be re-published here, so as to allow you an unvarnished view into what the tour was all about.

The text is hers, which I've respected and not changed apart from a few subheadings and extra paragraph breaks and some Americanizations of her English spelling (they are from New Zealand).

I've sourced the pictures and their captions are also from me, not Jeanette.

You can follow along with her narration by tracking the tour on this tour itinerary page and the linked Google maps.

I hope this will encourage you to come on our 2018 Scotland's Islands and Highlands Tour.

Day 2 – Tuesday June 15th 2010 – Campbeltown to Bowmore, Isle of Islay

Google Touring Map for the Day

We woke up at 7am to a beautiful sunny day with clear blue skies. Breakfast at 7:30am with Janice from San Diego. Ken had Muesli followed by a full Scottish breakfast (with black pudding) while I had Muesli followed by scrambled egg, mushrooms and tomatoes. We both enjoyed a nice cup of hot chocolate, which set us up for the day, and took a banana for a snack on our journey.

We were allocated the front seats today, with Ieva and Malcolm, for this morning's journey so we got some great views as we drove around the Kintyre peninsular. The bus did not depart until 9:45am so we had time for a walk in the town after checking out of the hotel.

Our first stop was 20 minutes away at Southend where we passed another Argyll Arms hotel. There appears to be many hotels in this region with this name. There was a large caravan park on the coast at Kiel Shore but it looked very exposed without any trees for shelter.

Ted emerging from the Kiel caves.

We had 20 minutes to see St Columbus's Footprint in a rock and an old well beside a very well kept old cemetery. The Kiel caves were nearby but we trusted Ted when he said you could not see far into them. We could see the coast of Ireland across the shimmering sea, very clearly to the South.

On the drive back to Campbeltown, we could see the Isle of Jura where Eric Blair (better known as George Orwell) lived and wrote his famous book “1984” in the year 1948. David also told us about the 'Clearances' in the 17th and 18th century when the nobles forced the crofters off the land creating mass emigrations to countries as far away as America. They had decided they needed large tracts of land for keeping sheep, the new 'industry' of the late 1700's.

At 10:50 am we arrived back in Campbeltown to pick up the remaining 10 passengers, then drove up the West Coast to Kennacraig. We passed another Argyll Arms hotel on this coast and were told that it was the first building in Britain to be bombed/strafed in World War II.

The now community owned Achamore Gardens on Gigha.

We could see the Isle of Gigha, off this coast, which is the most southerly and one of the most beautiful of the Hebridean islands. It now has a population of about 150 people, many of whom speak Scottish Gaelic, with a mild climate and higher than average sunshine hours and fertile soils. Gigha has a long history, having been inhabited continuously since prehistoric times and is the ancestral home of Clan MacNeill. It fell under the control of the Norse and the Lords of the Isles before becoming incorporated into modern Scotland and saw a variety of conflicts during the medieval period.

The population of Gigha peaked at over 700 in the 18th century, but during the 20th century the island had numerous owners, which caused various problems in developing the island. By the beginning of the 21st century resident numbers had fallen to only 98. However a "community buy-out" in 2002 (for 4 million) has transformed the island, which now has a growing population and a variety of new commercial activities to complement farming and tourism.

We arrived at Kennacraig at 12:15pm and had to wait on the bus for David and Jay to get our tickets to cross in the ferry to the Isle of Islay (pronounced Ila). We watched all the cars go onboard and a few large trucks, including a Shell tanker. Eventually they came back and we were able to drive onto the ferry with only room left behind us for one last truck.

There was a group of 6 Europeans (may have been Germans) whose mini van was not booked on the ferry and there was no room for them. As they were only going over for 1 night, David offered them seats on our bus to take them to Bowmore on the island. They are hoping their driver will get the van onto the later 6pm sailing.

There was plenty of room in the ship's lounges and on the outer decks. There was a cafeteria selling lunches and a bar selling soft drinks, coffees, teas and alcoholic drinks. We settled down in the forward lounge for the 2 hour journey when the ship left the port on schedule at 1pm. It was fascinating watching the bow of the ship be lowered to close off the entrance to the vehicle deck.

Like all ships we have ever been on, one of the crew was busy painting the winches in the front area of the ship. For the journey down the loch it was calm and sunny but the wind was cool so we stayed inside, taking turns to go up on deck to take photos from time to time. Ken settled down for a sleep using my lap as a pillow while I did some Sudoku. It was a very calm crossing to Port Askaig where we arrived at 2:55pm and were about the 4th vehicle off the ship.

The unusual round church at the top of Bowmore's main street.  It was apparently built round so the devil couldn't hide in the corners.

We climbed a steep hill from the port on our way to our overnight hotels in Bowmore, the capital of the Queen of the Isles (as Islay is known). There was a lot more cloud here and a sprinkle of rain on the windscreen. On our way, David gave us a very full description on how whisky is made. There are 9 distilleries on the island making this the main industry next to tourism for the 3000 population. Bird watching is also very popular here. This island used to be the headquarters for the Lords of the Isles. It is quite a hilly island with lots of sheep farms.

We arrived in Bowmore about 3:20pm and stopped at the Bowmore distillery for a tasting and tour before going to our 3 hotels. We first watched a DVD about the distillery while tasting a dram of whisky, but Ken and I passed ours onto Janice. Whisky has been produced here continuously since 1779, and illegally before that from 1776. It was owned by the Morrison family from 1963 to 1994 but is now owned by a Japanese firm. It is one of the 10 oldest distilleries in Scotland.

After the DVD, we walked into the 3 level Malt Barn which was empty due to the extreme shortage of water on the island. They usually have to close down in the summer but this year they have closed the processing plant a number of weeks earlier than usual. The barley is first steeped in water and then spread out on the malting floor to germinate. It is manually turned every 4 hours, day and night, to prevent the build up of heat by tossing the barley into the air with wooden shovels. During this process enzymes are activated which convert the starch into sugar when mashing takes place. After 6 to 7 days of germination the barley, now called green malt, goes to the kiln for drying. This halts the germination. The heat is kept below 70C (158F) so that the enzymes are not destroyed. Peat is added to the fire to impart flavour from the smoke.

We went upstairs to the 2nd floor to enter the kiln. We could smell the peat in the kiln even though it had not been used for 3 weeks. One special benefit of the malting process being closed was our ability to get right into the kiln. The 1.5 floors of germinating malt, when loaded into the kiln, can weigh up to 21 tons. It sits on fine mesh for 15 hours to allow the smoke from the fire below to permeate the grains. They feed the fire with peat, which is very salty and seaweedy, twice a week from nearby peat farms. They use a heat exchange to take heat from the kiln to the cooler areas of the buildings and to heat the community swimming pool nearby. The peat content of their whisky is about 20ppm (parts per million) which is about average. It can go up to over 100ppm, and down to zero.

We had a good look at the mill and saw examples of the grain in its different stages from barley to malt to grist. The dried malt is ground into a coarse flour or grist, which is mixed with hot water in the mash tun, 8 tons of grist per load. The water is added in 3 stages and gets hotter at each stage, starting around 67C (153F) and rising to almost boiling point. The quality of the pure Scottish water is important to the final flavour of the whisky. The mash is stirred, helping to convert the starches to sugar. This sweet sugary liquid is known as wort. The spent grains - the draff - is processed into cattle feed for the local farmers.

The wort is cooled to 20C (68F) and pumped into 6 Oregon Pine washbacks (each one named after a previous distillery owner), where 100 kg (220 lbs) yeast is added and fermentation begins. The living yeast feeds on the sugars, producing alcohol and small quantities of other compounds known as congeners, which contribute to the flavour of the whisky. Carbon dioxide is also produced and the wash froths violently. Revolving switchers cut the head to prevent it overflowing. After about 2 days the fermentation dies down and the wash now contains 6-8% alcohol by volume. One washback can hold 40,000 litres (10,567 gallons) which takes 5 hours to fill. It takes 40 hours to ferment.

Two of the stills at Bowmore Distillery, with a spirit safe in the back left.

In distillation, the still is heated to just below the boiling point of water and the alcohol and other compounds vaporize and pass over the neck of the still into either a condenser or a worm - a large copper coil immersed in cold running water where the vapour is condensed into a liquid. In some mysterious way the shape of the pot still affects the character of the individual malt whisky, and each distillery keeps its stills exactly the same over the years. The wash is distilled twice - first in the wash still, to separate the alcohol from the water, yeast and residue called pot ale - the solids of which are also saved for use in animal feeds.

The distillate from the wash still, known as low wines, and containing about 20% alcohol by volume, then goes to the spirit still for the second distillation. The more volatile compounds which distil off first, the foreshots, and the final runnings called feints where more oily compounds are vaporized, are both channelled off to be redistilled when mixed with the low wines in the next batch. Only the pure centre cut, or heart of the run, which is about 68% alcohol by volume is collected in the spirit receiver. 40,000 litres (10,567 gallons) of wash becomes 4,800 litres (1,268 gallons) of spirit. All the distillates pass through the spirit safe - whose locks were traditionally controlled by the Customs & Excise. The Stillman uses all his years of experience to test and judge the various distillates without being able to come into physical contact with the spirit. The newly distilled, colourless, fiery spirit reduced to maturing strength, 63% alcohol by volume, is filled into oak casks which may have previously contained claret, bourbon or sherry, and the maturation process begins.

The ‘famous’ (at least according to Bowmore) Bowmore No. 1 vaults is where some of their whiskies spend their long lives resting quietly in the cool, dark, damp cellars below sea level, oblivious to the waves thrashing the vault's sea-facing wall (although Bowmore say that the sea air that infuses the vault contributes to the style of the whisky so produced). There are 22,000 casks in the vault now, some dating back to 1957. Queen Elizabeth II came here in 2002 when she decided to have her 1957 cask bottled into 640 bottles.

At 5pm we boarded the coach again for the short drive to the Bowmore hotel, our home for the next 2 nights. What a difference to the lovely Argyll Arms hotel in Campbeltown. Here we had a very small bedroom with single (very narrow) beds. A wardrobe that was just a hole in the wall and very shallow, not even deep enough to take a coat hanger without turning it to the side. It had an exceptionally small bathroom, smaller than any ship's bathroom, with the tiniest hand basin. The only good factor was that the shower was normal size with good water pressure. Two nights here will not be any joy. I spoke to the bar manager (there is no reception desk) and he said he would organize for the beds to be 'clipped' together in the morning. This never happened.

About 6pm we went for a walk in the tiny town to find somewhere to eat for dinner. We tried the Harbour Inn where some of our party were staying. They appeared to have a very good seafood menu but the dining room was fully booked.We met an Australian couple who had flown from Glasgow to Bowmore today and they were intending to visit as many distilleries as they could.

We walked all around the streets, past the High School then tried the co-op to see if they had any hot food. They were sold out so we decided to try the Taj Mahal Tandoori restaurant. I ordered pan fried fish and chips (not very Indian) as the fish was salmon. Ken ordered Duck Tiki Masala which is supposed to be mild. He said the sauce was nice but it was not what he had expected. My salmon was delicious so I shared some with Ken and he had half of my chips and peas so we both had a reasonable meal. Unfortunately when we came to pay they told us they did not have a working visa machine even though they had a notice in the window that said they accepted visa. We just had enough cash to pay (21.90) but are now nearly out of cash.

We walked to the Harbour Inn to book dinner for tomorrow night but they told us they were fully booked again. We met Jay on our way back to our hotel and he was surprised at the lack of food places in this town. The only food shop was the co-op.

When we got back to our hotel we saw the manager who gave us a code to access their wi-fi network. At last we are on the Internet again which is a slight compensation for the ridiculously small bedroom. I had a nice chat with David Rowell on Skype. He had to pay for Internet access at the Harbour Inn so we were better off here in that regard.

I phoned Mum in NZ, via Skype, and had a nice long chat, the first for 4 days. Lights out just after midnight.

Read more in the rest of Jeanette's Diary

See the links to each day of the eleven day tour/trip diary at the top right of this page.


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Originally published 7 Jan 2011, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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