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Discovering Islay, Scotland in a BMW 3 Series Touring
Islay is a gloriously picturesque island on the southern most bit of the Western Isles of Scotland and rightly called the Queen of the Hebrides. We had never been there before until we caught the Cal Mac ferry one glorious October day from Kennacraig and two hours later sailed into the Sound of Islay, docking at Port Askaig. We drove ashore in our blue BMW 3 Series Touring in Mediterranean temperatures not quite believing that we were in the Hebrides, famous for its winds and storms! The car was packed to the gunnels with walking and fishing gear, cameras and recording equipment and hopefully there was still a bit of room for a whisky barrel from one of the famous whisky distilleries on the island!
Our journey north to the ferry had been a delight and a true test of this posh little estate car of which BMW is so proud. The 3 Series is by far their best seller and its rich pedigree goes on getting better and better. Now we were driving the fifth generation of these cars and marvelling at its handling and driveability. Dropped into this particular model was a six-cylinder, single turbocharged 2.5 diesel engine. And boy did it like to show off. Purring like a cat licking cream we zipped north to join the ferry from our home in the Scottish borders. Diesel engines sometimes rattle or give some kind of hint that they are a bit on the rough side. But not this one; at high speeds we felt completely relaxed as we stretched it, letting it accelerate from zero to 62mph in 7.6 seconds, remembering it had a top speed of 145mph and would have gone higher without electronic intervention!
And on Islay where the roads curve and dip, following the incredibly beautiful and sometimes ragged coastline, the car took every bend in its stride while the cabin was super comfortable with excellent dials and layout. We were also getting a great mileage - over forty five miles to the gallon, a remarkable figure considering its 197hp. The C02 emissions are also impressive with 176g/km and in such an unspoiled natural environment such figures seem to matter all the more.
Autumn and the onset of winter is a quiet time on Islay, quite different from the summer when it is flat-out busy with tourists. Neil Scott runs the Harbour Inn at Bowmore. “Once you come to Islay it seems to throw a spell over you,” he told me from the terrace of the inn overlooking the blue waters of Loch Indaal. “My mother was born here and I used to come from the mainland for holidays and four years ago my wife and I had just sold our hotel at Loch Ness and came for a break. That’s when we spotted the Harbour Inn was for sale and we just had to have it.”
Neil also believes that Islay has a great deal to offer the winter visitor, so much so that he has joined forces with other businessmen on the island to form ‘Discover Islay’ which is now trumpeting Islay’s charms. It is backed by Visit Scotland, the national tourism agency which is contributing forty per cent of the project’s $34,000 budget for the first year. Contributions are also flooding in from whisky distilleries (there are eight on the island) as well as other local enterprises.
Bird life is one of the great attractions on Islay during the winter months and chief among these is the spectacular arrival of wild geese that come in the autumn when the leaves are turning red and gold. They fly down from the cold northern arctic - pinkfoots and greylags, whitefronts and barnacles chattering and shouting with excitement as they arrive, their talk carrying to the far corners of the island. Since the end of the last ice age they have made the same, hazardous journey, drawn by the sands and mudflats of Islay, which has become their own private Riviera. The mild climate will see them through the rigours of winter before they fly north again to breed.
On our short drive to Bowmore we seemed to pass a whisky distillery around every corner, the sea almost lapping at our wheels as we skirted Loch Indaal. That’s when we caught our first glimpse of Islay’s geese, an advance party of whitefronts, yelping like hungry puppies and part of a mixed army of some 45,000 that would arrive by the end of the month.
One very nice touch with BMW Touring models is the split tailgate which allows the rear window to be opened separately. This is particularly useful if you are packing a lot of gear into the car. You can get those final bits through the glass window. And we have said before that it is particularly useful for anglers who want to carry long rods from one part of a fishing venue to another. You just click open the back window and feed the butt of the rod through to the front seats allowing the tip to stick harmlessly and safely out the back. It was also handy to quickly get at a camera for a shot of the geese as they came whistling over our heads and on to the wet sands in front of us.
Along at the Harbour Inn, sipping tea and munching on home made fruit cake, we planned out the next few days. Neil gave us a few tips but visiting a whisky distillery is a must for most visitors and we opted to go to Kilchoman a farm distillery that grows its own barley, malts it with their own peat and makes whisky in much the same way as the Irish monks did hundreds of years ago. The only trouble is there is no whisky to be had yet. It’s still being made and won’t be ready until 2011!
The craggy south east coast past Laphroaig, yet another distillery, and along the narrow road to Claggan bay is a feast for the eyes. On one side are hidden bays riddled with jagged rocks and pristine, deserted beaches and on the other the woodlands of Ardmore, Kildalton, and Callumkill ablaze with autumn colours.
We stayed two days at the Harbour Inn and then moved to the other side of the loch to the Monachs a bed and breakfast run by our friends Ronnie and Marie Brown. Their lovely house is built on a hill with views to die for. They too had been visiting the island and fell head over heels in love with it and decided they would like to live there. They like to walk across the lush pastures full of hares, which their labrador loves to chase, and breathe in the salt-laden air. Ronnie is a wonderful host and Marie a super cook. Together they make a visit to their house on the hill a joy and we can’t wait to go back. Ronnie is a keen angler with his rods ready and waiting at the front door for a spot of trout fishing and there’s nothing better than a spotted brown trout with wedges of lemon on the plate for breakfast, after a good Scottish bowl of porridge of course!
On our final day we drove towards the west coast hoping to spot a pair of golden eagles and their youngster. The tiny roads did not encourage high speed of any sort; instead we motored at little more than walking pace. Holding the engine back in this way might have upset the car but it seemed to thrive on it which allowed us to take in every aspect of the stunning views.
Reports had reached us that the adult eagles were teaching the young fledgling the finer points of flying and hunting. It would have been a very special sight to behold so we kept our eyes peeled for the classic plank-wings of the great birds (so many people think they have spotted a golden eagle when they have only seen the much smaller and pointed wings of a buzzard). We called in on Anne Kemp at Tormisdale Croft which lies between Portnahaven and Port Charlotte on the Kilchiarin road. It was quite a rough track in places but we hardly knew it thanks to the exceptional suspension kicking in and smoothing our route. Another real comfort, both psychologically and physically, is that all BMW’s now have run-flat tyres. No spare is carried so if you do get a puncture you just keep driving. You get a warning of course that the tyre has lost pressure but a fully laden car has a good ninety miles of driving in it at a maximum speed of 50 mph, which gives you an opportunity to replace the tyre at a suitable garage. However, the great advantage is one of safety. A blow out on a standard tyre can make you lose control of the vehicle. And who wants to change a wheel in the dark?
Twenty three years ago Anne also came here on holiday and ended up in the croft. It was restored, using stone and slate, and it blends nicely into the hillside. A Lancashire lass, with a happy face, she oozes contentment and enjoys making her living from the tourists who visit her little shop that smells sweetly of burning peat. “Every morning when I look out of the window I think I’m just so lucky,” she beams.
She spins her own wool from the rare breeds of sheep grazing on her land and dyes it with the natural colours extracted from lichen, nettles, ragwort, meadowsweet and bog myrtle. Then she knits it into sweaters and cardigans, shawls and socks. “In winter Islay takes on a different look, quite bare, but the light is so amazing and even if it’s blowing a gale it’s still beautiful.” Could she ever live on the mainland again, we ask. “Never, I couldn’t live there now.” she laughs, “This is where I stay for ever.”
We could see what she meant. Islay does reach out and grab you and it’s difficult to tear yourself away. But the ferry was calling and another opportunity to put this triumphant diesel engine to the test. Needless to say it brought us safely home and we were sorry to see it go back to BMW.
Keith and Lynne travelled from their home in Berwick upon Tweed in a BMW 325d Touring.
For more details on this model and the full range of vehicles: www.bmw.com
Caledonian MacBrayne ferries run from Kennacraig to Port Askaig or Port Ellen on Islay from $146 return per car and $28 return per passenger
Booking hotline 08000665000
WHERE TO STAY
The Harbour Inn, Bowmore, Isle of Islay
Double room with breakfast from $220 per night
The Monachs, Nerabus, Port Charlotte, Isle of Islay
Bed and breakfast $90 per person per night
WHAT TO SEE
Kilchoman Whisky Distillery
Tormisdale Croft Crafts
Anne Kemp 01496 860239
Portrait of Britain, published by Dorling Kindersley.
Husband and wife, Keith Allan and Lynne Gray are travel writers and photographers based in Berwick upon Tweed on the English/Scottish border. They have worked for The Times, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, House and Garden, Scotland on Sunday and The Herald. For more than twenty years they have worked as freelance producers and reporters for BBC Radio, working from their own independent studio for BBC Radio 4, Radio 5 and Radio Scotland as well as the BBC’s World Service.