Voyage to the Western Isles

Voyage to the Western Isles

Andrew Jefford took the slow boat around Scotland's most famous distilleries and discovered that malt whisky is the best antidote to bad weather

Travel | 16 Oct 1999 | Issue 6 | By Andrew Jefford

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The skipper looked the part, anyway, even if the week's guests were a motley crew. Jamie Robinson was his name. Sea dogs don't come any saltier: weather-beaten cheeks, rolling gait, the strength of three men when it came to reefing the mainsail in a rising force six. It wasn't just the seamanship, either: down below decks, when the lingering light of a Hebridean July finally drained into sullen grey night, he'd produce a concertina and sing sea shanties which I'll remember as long as I live.‘We'll scrape her and we'll scrub her
With holy stone and sand,
For it blows some cold nor'westers
On the banks of Newfoundland.’Put a bottle of Dalwhinnie in front of Jamie and he drank it like most of us drink wine, even if he did get up the next morning cursing. His wife, Marion, made a skilled and patient ship's mate, and his mother, Mary, a heroically accomplished cook, able to crimp home-made Cornish pasties in the sort of conditions usually experienced in theme-park, white-knuckle extremis. Incompetent, bungling and weak, finally: that was us, the journalists. But appreciative, too. Glad to be alive at the end of the day – that kind of thing.It will not have escaped the notice of Whisky Magazine's percipient readers that three of United Distillers and Vintners' six classic malts are sited hard by the sea. Oban commands the sheltered passage around the inner Hebrides up the Firth of Lorn and through the Sound of Mull; you could rest the night there, too, before sailing up Loch Linnhe to Fort William, and it was once known as Gateway to the Isles. Lagavulin, of course, has perhaps the finest marine site of any distillery in the world: the ancient, ruined sea fort of the Lord of the Isles, Dunyvaig, haunts its rock-strewn bay. And Talisker, too, is on Skye's wild, spray-drenched side, at the head of Loch Harport, though it takes its name from an almost sinisterly beautiful bay just across the headland.Back in 1994, UD (as it then was) got together with the Clyde Cruising Club, Glasgow's yachtsmen, to organise a triangular tour between the three distilleries. It's the right kind of journey to take a leisurely fortnight over, and Scottish mariners are a passionately thirsty lot. The bonds forged, UD reasoned, during two happy July weeks would not prove easy to sunder during the year's remaining 50. So it has proved. The Classic Malts flotilla swells each year, and the Millennial version next July promises to be the largest ever. In principle you have to have a yacht to take part; non-sailors and the yachtless, though, can always pay for a passage, as a Dutch group did this year aboard a wooden sailing boat based on Scotland's east coast called the Andrea Jensen. We generally moored alongside the Andrea Jensen, and the smell from her peat stove drifting down our companionway formed the dream background for our evening drams.Jamie's boat – our boat – was a gaff cutter called the Eda Frandsen; this former Danish fishing vessel had been painstakingly restored by the Robinson family. (Twice: all the work of the first restoration was lost when the flames of a neighbouring workshop fire burnt the boat to a char.) It was hard, as we first climbed on board in Oban harbour, not to be struck by her intricate, sturdy beauty. Squeezing into our bunks for the night was no less revelatory; the ideal physique for a sailor, we quickly learned, was that of a short, squat weightlifter.

Few outdoor activities are as weather-dependent as sailing, and whether or not we'd been lucky with the weather formed a running discussion during the week. In one sense, it couldn't have been worse: a low-pressure zone hovered over us like the clouds on every mountain we passed. The sky was grey, purple and black; it was full of falling water; it carried a chill. We did, though, enjoy the benefit of ample wind, which the sun-burned, fair-weather sailors of the following week ran short of. Our longest day's sailing saw us leaving Islay's Port Askaig at eight, watched by the morning-shift stillmen of Caol Ila, before bouncing through the brisk-watered Sound of Iona, past Tiree and Coll and then northwards towards Rum and finally Canna: 14 hours in all. At lunchtime, life seemed jolly enough. A puffin or two bobbed by, and a school of inquisitive dolphins finned ahead of the bow for a while, turning sideways in the water to get a better gaze up at our own inquisitive faces staring down. For the last four hours, though, we laboured through heavy seas, lashing winds and horizontal rain as dusk collapsed about us. Wedged wetly on a heaving deck, our only distraction was to watch the shearwaters clip the waves, the gulls soar on bluffs and banks of wind, and the guillemots cruise down corridors sculpted by the incessant mounding of the water. When Schooner Point on Rum eventually loomed, its black mass soaring nearly 2000 feet out of the grasp of ferocious breakers, it seemed to beckon evilly. We were much happier than our stoical silence indicated, an hour later, to see a dozen boats jostling and twinkling in the harbour formed by little Canna and its Sanday appendix.So how much did we learn about malt whisky on the cruise? Well, there are distillery tours laid on for all who want them, and the two social pinnacles of our week were a communal seafood buffet in the distillery yard at Oban and a reel-rich ceilidh at Talisker. In truth, though, there was not much discussion of Lagavulin's steeply raked lye pipes or whether there might be any differences between Talisker's 60-hour fermentations and the 90-hour variants which follow them.I have, though, never drunk so much malt whisky in seven days nor, more significantly, needed to drink so much malt whisky every day. One of the two Norwegians on our boat, Thea Michelet, put it most succinctly. There was, she explained, a special perception of cold which she christened ’spinal chill’; it was when you felt cold to the core of your being. That, she argued, was why Scotch whisky existed: to combat spinal chill and other like conditions endemic in the Scottish climate. Since our odyssey took place in July, we suffered spinal damp more vividly than spinal chill, but it was daily evident that malt whisky is the perfect antidote to inclemency of all sorts.The cruise also helped me understand these spirits more intimately than I had before. If UDV, remember, could possibly distil its Scotch malt in East Kilbride, Motherwell or Cumbernauld, it would; nothing could be more expensive, inconvenient or alien to the ethos of a large, efficiency-driven multinational than lugging ingredients up and whisky back from the wrong side of Skye or the butt end of Islay. Yet move a distillery and you destroy a distillery. Its place and the configuration of its installations define its flavour perhaps more intangibly than its malt recipe, but no less certainly. I had never before understood these places as I began to on this trip.Take a glass of Oban, for example. What's there? A whiff of smoky salt, of sun-dried sail ropes; a dry, almost tart seaside tang. As we pulled away from the jetty into the broad bay, surrounded by gulls, smacks and sturdy sea-captain's houses, it seemed impossible that ’wee Oban’, the tiny distillery at the port's heart, could produce spirit which might taste otherwise. And Lagavulin? I stood in a damp, earthy corner of one of its warehouses looking through iron bars and a metal mesh, but no glass, to Dunyvaig as the rain drummed down onto the jetty; I remembered the sodden chocolate-coloured bricks of peat stacked up on the Duich moss as we'd been ferried across the island in the school bus. The smoke from the maltings at Port Ellen was identical to that from the Andrea Jensen's stove. Of course: that rough brown smell, that scouring, dripping, compost-like flavour, that long reeky smoulder after you've swallowed – it had to be thus. As we sailed along Skye's shelf-like western edge, you could watch the waterfalls cascading from the mountains meet the wild wind romping in from Barra – and they'd vaporise, disappearing back into the clouds from which they fell without ever reaching the sea. It was then that I began to understand some of the merry havoc you'll find in a glass of that challengingly boisterous and occasionally indigestible 10-year-old malt.

Fanciful? Sail for yourself, and you'll see.
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