Hebridean Spirit

Whisky writer and photographer Christopher Coates takes a moment to reminisce on his memories of Islay and Jura

The memory of my first visit to Islay is one that will stay with me forever. I drove to Tarbert from Edinburgh, where I’m based, quite late one evening. It was June, so it’d been twilight for much of my journey down the Kintyre peninsula. After a handful of hours’ sleep, I woke very early for the 7am Kennacraig ferry. I remember mist swirling above the water at the port and a chill in the air as spectacular golden light hit the hills across the water on the western shore. An oystercatcher, a favourite west-coast native, was perched on a rock by the waterside and whistling away to itself – its pipping and peeping the only noise other than the low rumble of the ferry. The journey of the previous day, the early start, and the calm surroundings had me well and truly ready to go back to bed, so once onboard I slumped down on a sofa in the upstairs cabin and promptly fell asleep.

I was awoken abruptly by cheerful whooping and yelling. Outside on the observation deck, a group of German tourists were jumping up and down in excitement and waving their arms, Glencairn glasses on lanyards swinging wildly around their necks. One had a pair of binoculars in hand. Others were hugging. A few Ileachs, Islay locals, and other regular passengers onboard smiled knowingly. Wondering what the fuss was about, I went up to the balustrade and looked out to where the visitors were pointing. A whitewashed warehouse and pagoda roof was gleaming in the distance, standing out clearly against the green-grey of the coastline and cerulean sky. I joined in the cheering. We’d arrived.

Caol Ila distillery – the ferry ride home offers a great view of work progressing on the new visitor centre
The Port Charlotte Hotel regularly hosts music nights – join the craic in the bar for a great night

I often think about that first solo pilgrimage and the visceral expression of collective joy that burst forth on the deck that morning as we saw Islay’s shoreline for the first time. Beyond the simple awe one experiences while visiting a place of outstanding natural beauty (and, it must be said, breathtaking vistas really are ten a penny on these islands), I’ve concluded that Islay and its northern neighbour, Jura, have something special about them that goes beyond being easy on the eye – a capacity to lift your spirits like no other part of Scotland. Whether it’s flying a kite on the big strand beach, watching the sunset over Bowmore, tucking into a seafood platter picnic, admiring the majesty of the Paps of Jura while gazing out from Ardnahoe, having a laugh with the locals, taking a boat trip to view one of the world’s largest whirlpools and search for sea life, or dancing to live folk music at the Port Charlotte Hotel, I can think of no better place to make memories and friends that you’ll cherish forever.

It pays to keep an eye on the skies around Islay and Jura for a chance to spot some of the most beautiful, and rare, birds on these islands

 Though often characterised as ‘whisky islands’, keen photographers, naturalists, foodies, ramblers and music lovers will find themselves just as at home here as the ‘drammers’. On my first trip to Jura, having only disembarked from the famous ‘drifting’ ferry a few minutes before, I spotted a grey bird hovering over the moorland encircling the single-track road. Later, while enjoying a beer at the Jura Hotel in Craighouse, a friendly Diurach, a Jura resident, confirmed it was a hen harrier, one of the UK’s rarest and most endangered raptors. A keen birder, my father had told me to look out for them while walking in the quieter areas, as he’d never had the chance to see one in the wild and was excited that I might catch a glimpse of this rare sight. I saw four from my car window that morning alone.

A plate of fresh oysters- the seafood does not come fresher than on Islay and Jura

If these few anecdotes alone aren’t enough to convince any sceptic that these Hebridean isles have a special capacity to enliven the soul, then perhaps this will do it: despite visiting regularly for work over the past decade in my capacity as editor of Scotland and later Whisky magazines, my partner and I still visit both Islay and Jura at least once a year for a personal holiday. Sometimes we camp and BBQ. Sometimes we stay in rented accommodation and cook for ourselves, using the best local ingredients. Other times we stay in a luxury hotel, pamper ourselves with spa treatments and enjoy the island’s restaurants.

The Paps seen from Port Askaig – where you can catch a ferry to the mainland or across to Jura

I know we’re not the only couple who find themselves drawn back to Islay and Jura year after year to recharge their mental batteries. It’s as if a little Ileach or Diruach is born inside each of us when we first step ashore, forever tying our spirits to these breathtaking, inimitable islands and their communities. A decade after my first visit, now I’m one of the passengers smiling knowingly as others whoop and cheer on the ferry.

Christopher Coates

About the author

Christopher Coates is a whisky and travel writer, photographer and filmmaker. He was invited to visit the islands as part An alumnus of Edinburgh’s Scotch Whisky Experience, his writing on Scotch whisky has been published regularly in Whisky Magazine for over seven years and appeared in other titles, including Hidden Scotland. Editor of the bi-monthly travel and history title Scotland Magazine between 2015-19, Christopher was named Editor of Whisky Magazine in 2020 and simultaneously became Chair of Judges for the World Whiskies Awards and Icons of Whisky, after serving on those competitions’ judging panels for over four years. In 2021, he produced Whisky Magazine’s first documentary film, A Life In Whisky: The Dennis Malcolm Story. A keen photographer, Christopher has built up one of the industry’s most comprehensive portfolios of Scotch whisky distillery images, though he also has a passion for landscape and wildlife photography.

Twitter: @ChrisMCoates / www.twitter.com/chrismcoates

Instagram: @Quercus_Alba / www.instagram.com/quercus_alba

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/christopher-coates-65827173