Islay: Mull of Oa and Port Ellen

Admiring the extensive views, Mull of Oa

The Oa (just pronounced O) is the rocky and rugged peninsula in the southwest of Islay. Once fairly densely populated, it now has only a few scattered dwellings, one of which is our rented cottage. A top priority was to drive out to the Mull of Oa – the tip – to the American Monument: our error was to do this on the first morning. The weather looked reasonably pleasant from our window, but we failed to take into account that the Mull was considerably higher than we were and the closer we got, the poorer visibility became.

Oh well, we pressed on regardless. The Mull is an RSPB reserve, so we left the car in its parking area and set off on a waymarked circular tour (3.5km). If there were birds, we couldn’t see them.

The outer route is direct to the monument, but before we got there we were surprised by a herd of feral goats suddenly looming out of the mist: almost impossible to photograph. This one looks quite evil!

The monument itself was similarly invisible until we were almost upon it. The second picture below is from our previous visit in 1989 – that’s John lurking under the blue cagoule – so we have never visited this site in good weather! Last time was even worse: we had hired bikes and cycled out from Port Ellen (hence the map pocket round John’s neck) and it wasn’t just misty, it was pouring. I remember we cut our losses on the full-day hire and returned the bikes by lunchtime.

What is the American Monument? It was erected by the American Red Cross in 1920 to commemorate two US troopship disasters off the coast of Islay in 1918. SS Tuscania was torpedoed by a German U-Boat on 5th February with the loss of over 200 American and British crew. A few months later, HMS Otranto sank following a collision in bad weather with another troopship. This time 431 people died, including 80 British crew. As well as the main commemoration, there is a tribute from President Woodrow Wilson.

As we left, we spotted more feral goats. This pair were more visble and posed helpfully against the skyline.

The return journey took us parallel to the clifftops – the mist was clearing a bit by this time. I suppose you could say the view was atmospheric, if not extensive …

From here, we turned inland again towards Upper Killeyan Farm and the path back to the carpark. There were several highland cattle in the field who were not bothered by us at all. Even the one almost blocking the gate barely looked at us as we sidled past. Scary horns though!

As we had to pass our cottage to go on to our next walk, we stopped off there for lunch before heading down to Port Ellen, the island’s second largest town. Below is the Islay Hotel which sits on a corner site overlooking the seafront. (We didn’t go inside this time, but we had lunch there later in the week when I took the shot of their wine glass chandelier which caught my eye.)

We stayed in the Islay Hotel in 1989, though that building was later demolished after 20 years of dereliction, and replaced with the current hotel in 2011. The two views below are of the same terrace. The first, taken in 1989, looks towards the old hotel, the taller building just right of centre. The second, taken this year, looks in the other direction along the terrace from the hotel, but I think you can see that they are recognisably the same.

After almost 3 weeks of camping and B&Bs in 1989, we thought the Islay Hotel would be a treat for the last three nights of our holiday. Nothing could have been further from the truth! The place was very run down and badly managed, so I’m not surprised it closed a few years later. The owners were a couple who, I’m guessing, had sold their home in the South of England for such a vast price that they could afford to buy a Scottish hotel – not an uncommon occurrence. Unfortunately their management skills seemed to be close to zero, but you couldn’t dislike them because every time something went wrong they would laugh merrily as they botched a solution, whereas I’d have been dying of embarrassment at demonstrating such incompetence. Later in the week of our recent stay, we asked someone local if he knew what had happened to them and it seems they left the island. Probably one of their wiser decisions.

Anyway, back to the present day. We wandered round Port Ellen, which didn’t take long, before heading off on a 5km loop in search of standing stones. The weather improved as the afternoon wore on and we were able to appreciate the views this time.

The walk first of all took us up a very well made cycleway / footpath running alongside the main road. There are three distilleries on the coast to the east of Port Ellen – Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg – and this would be a fabulous way to visit them on foot, possibly getting the bus back if the refreshment had taken away your desire to walk. Our whisky plans were for another day, however, so we turned off before we reached any of the distilleries. But first we climbed the small mound topped by the memorial to Major General Alexander McDougall.

McDougall was born in Islay in 1732, but emigrated to New York with his family when he was six. His first job was as a milk delivery boy, then he signed up as a merchant seaman aged 14. He worked his way up to become the owner of several ships before being commissioned in the Continental Amy during the American War of Independence. He later became a politician and President of the Bank of New York – MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village is named in his honour. (I’m not sure why the spelling is different. A mistake? Or maybe he had changed his name slightly?)

Across the road from the memorial is the Old Excise House. We took the lane running alongside it, walking uphill through the fertile fields growing grain for the whisky.

The verges were lush with wild flowers. A stile on the right provided access to the first standing stone, one of many dotted across Islay which date from the Neolithic or early Bronze Age. Climbing above it, we could look back on the distillery buildings of Laphroaig.

We continued up the lane and turned right onto the tiny road towards Kilbride Farm where there is another stone.

Retracing our steps, we passed the junction with the lane and carried on down the road back to Port Ellen. Here we met some curious cows who gave us a hard stare from behind a wall. They didn’t have the big horns of the highland cattle, but they looked much more intimidating. The second picture below, of cows blocking a gate, dates from 1989 so we must have had a similar experience then. What is it about Islay cows?

The field across the road contained another standing stone. There appeared to be no cows in it, but there’s a cunning dip in which they were hiding. As we walked up to the stone we spooked a small herd of deer which ran down the slope, followed by the thundering hooves of at least 20 cows. They ran back and forward across the field as a herd, eventually stopping between us and the gate. And staring. Hard. We sidled to the fence at the side. Barbed wire, so I wasn’t going to climb that. Fortunately by this time, the cows were beginning to lose interest in us and wandered off. No pictures of this bunch, but next to the stone below (which wasn’t even all that attractive) you can see the first lot again who, after our escape, were still giving us the evil eye.

The last stone was near the junction of the main road we’d started out on. Fortunately, no cows in sight. From there it was a short distance back to Port Ellen and our car.

I really should have had my July Gallivanting post online today, but guess what? We’ve been gallivanting too much! A large part of the month was spent travelling with no time to write and sometimes without decent wifi, which also eplains why I have been less active in blog reading and commenting – apologies!  I’ll do a joint July / August Gallivanting post instead.

In a further complication,  I’ve been called to the High Court for jury duty, starting on Wednesday. As this is the last post I prepared before we went on holiday, I might have to go silent for a bit if I’m selected to serve. I know it’s my civic duty and I should want to do it, but I really hope I’m not picked. I’ve served on four juries in total, the first when I was only 19 years old, so I think I’ve done my bit!

Till we meet again … may it be soon.