Islay: call to place

MV Finlaggan at Kennacraig

Back in May, we took the ferry from Kennacraig in Kintyre to Port Askaig on beautiful Islay (pronounced Eye-la) where we spent a wonderful week tramping all over the island. We last visited on our epic Hebridean tour of 1989, parts of which we replicated last summer, so we were well overdue a visit, especially as we had only been there for a couple of days the first time and felt we hadn’t done it justice. Since then, of course, a certain amount of Islay whisky had been consumed and it was not impossible that a distillery – or two, or more – would appear on our itinerary.

John and Janet Sinclair, John and Meg

In addition to the scenery and whisky, another attraction of Islay was the pull of family lore. One of my great-grandfathers, my mother’s maternal grandfather John Joss Sinclair, was born there in 1866. John was destined to be a Church Minister, as decided by his father. However, he declared that he had no intention of going around the countryside with his collar on back to front, and at 16 years old he ran away from the island to mainland Scotland.

Over the next few years John was employed in farms around the West of Scotland and became a noted ploughman. Eventually, he arrived at Kilmacolm to work on The Green Farm where he fell in love with the farmer’s daughter, Janet Carson. John and Janet’s first child, and only son, John, was born in 1886, sometime before their marriage. By 1901 seven daughters had been added to the family, so Janet’s life must have been a hard slog.

John Sinclair ploughing, 1908

John and Janet worked on farms in Coatbridge, Cumbernauld and Amochrie, and John was eventually in charge of a Clydesdale stallion. In his fifties, he gave up farm work and returned to Kilmacolm. They moved into the Bridgend Toll House, which came with his new job in charge of the road-menders. The Toll figures largely in Mum’s many happy memories of her childhood. Here she is in the late 1920s as a baby and toddler, “Wee Chrissie”, with her grandparents. For reference, Janet must be about the same age as I am now. How times have changed!

John never went back to see his parents, only returning to Islay in later life with one of his grandchildren (not my mum) to see his sister Katie MacAffer. He and Janet are both buried in Kilmacolm – compare the gravestone below as it was after my great-grandmother died in 1949, and as it is today. (Thanks to my cousin, Tracy Rice, for the current photo.)

When we visited Islay in 1989 I either didn’t know about this family history or wasn’t especially interested, I can’t remember. However, in the last few years I’ve worked with Mum to blog about her memories – you can read her post John and Janet for a fuller version of what I’ve written here – and now I’m much more aware. I’m not about to start researching our family tree (far too much like hard work) but I love collecting the stories Mum is passing down and decided on our recent visit to Islay to look out for any references to Sinclairs or MacAffers.

So we went to Islay looking for whisky, walking and family history. The next few posts will tell you how we got on. This post, I’m linking to Cathy at ~wander.essence~ who has a monthly Call to Place strand in which she invites you to write about what enticed you to choose a recently visited or future destination. Head over there for her fabulous traveller’s tales!

92 thoughts on “Islay: call to place

  1. Lisa Dorenfest July 27, 2019 / 00:02

    PS – thanks for the introduction to Cathy! I’ve just joined her community!


  2. Lisa Dorenfest July 26, 2019 / 23:45

    You had me with scenery and whiskey but hooked me with the family lore. We tend to think of our elders (and their elders) as being all prim, proper and by the book. But when you hear the stories of their youth, its all running away, out of wedlock births (and in m grandmother’s case a lot of forbidden lipstick and youthful drinking involved) before they settled down into their ‘prim and proper’ routines. Very hard to believe Janet was the same age as you are now in that picture – she looks well over 100 ;-). And speaking of age, amazing how quickly those gravestones have weathered.


  3. Jemima Pett July 26, 2019 / 11:09

    One one research project I was doing in the early 2000s I was hoping to use Islay as a case study because of their pioneering approach to sustainable energy. Is the wave-energy generator still going well?
    And I have run out of Islay, Oban, Tobermory and and another malt. Disaster looms!


    • Anabel @ The Glasgow Gallivanter July 26, 2019 / 14:41

      I don’t know about the wave-energy generator, sorry. As for the whisky running out, it would be a good excuse to visit the islands again! I won’t mention that there must be outlets nearer home …


  4. Pit July 24, 2019 / 17:18

    I must admit, I can’t see/read the word “Islay” without immediately adding “malt” to it, thing of the Laphroaig I used to like a lot. Wonderfully peaty!


  5. Jessica (Diverting Journeys) July 24, 2019 / 15:06

    Those are wonderful family photos, and I had to laugh at your great-grandfather not wanting to go around “with his collar on back to front!” I don’t blame him!


  6. Ann Coleman July 24, 2019 / 01:06

    I’m with you…I don’t really care about tracing long-lost relatives, but love hearing family stories about them. It makes them seem so much more real! It’s sad that John wasn’t able to reconcile with his parents, but it does sound as if he had a good life and choose his own path. Thanks for sharing this story!


    • Anabel @ The Glasgow Gallivanter July 24, 2019 / 07:26

      All very true. If I had unlimited time I would maybe do some research, but I’m happy with the stories I have. These people are within living memory, anyone before my great grandparents would be strangers essentially.


  7. shazza July 23, 2019 / 21:09

    Having ancestors from the Islay is certainly a good reason to visit, not that anyone really needs an insensitive. My mum has been to Islay , it’s on my list! I think with buying a caravan in the North Lakes, we might use it to split up a journey to Scotland, though maybe the borders or Dumfries & Galloway first. X


  8. susan@onesmallwalk July 23, 2019 / 16:12

    Anabel – Really interesting to find out the stories behind our family histories, isn’t it? It makes our connections to places a bit more full. Cheers- Susan


  9. ms6282 July 23, 2019 / 09:51

    One day I will visit the Scottish islands ( if I last that long!)
    Interesting to read of the family connection to Islay. It adds a different element and focus to the visit. Last year I visited Thessaloniki, a place I’d never had thought of going, due to a family connection. As well as being interesting (and moving) for that reason I loved the city too.


  10. Jonno July 23, 2019 / 08:43

    Fabulously lovely post. How great to discover some family history and also see the beautiful island of Islay. Always fancied a trip out there.


    • Anabel @ The Glasgow Gallivanter July 23, 2019 / 09:25

      It’s gorgeous, Jonno, I’m sure you’d love it. We’ve just been up the west coast which is also lovely, but there’s something very special about the islands.

      Liked by 1 person

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