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there'd be too much chance of illegal distilling on Islay just because there's so much of
the legal variety - you'd think that anybody with those sorts of skills could make a good,
worry-free living working on the right side of the law - and Islay always feels quite civ-
ilised compared to some bits of Scotland, the bits I usually associate with whisky produc-
tion. It really does feel like it's part of Scotland's central belt in places, certainly com-
pared to the other Inner Hebridean islands, let alone the Outer Hebrides.
But then maybe if you're a distiller in your day job and you find the whole process
technically fascinating - and don't just want to get away from it of an evening and put
your feet up in front of the telly - you would try setting up a portable still somewhere
in the wilds just to see if it can be done, and whether your skills translate to a smaller
scale. After all, Islay is quite rugged in places, with its own relative remotenesses. I took
a solitary drive out to the Oa, the nearly circular peninsula sticking out like a growth from
Islay's south-east corner, pointing towards Ireland, and it got really rugged and interest-
ing down towards that fabulously fractured coast; all sea stacks, cliffs, ragged gullies and
caves fronting the greyly shining sea and fringed by rocks covered with yellowing foam
blown off the waves. You could hide a still on the Oa no problem. Goodness knows, the
extravagantly cratered single-track road would be enough to put off any Excise man con-
cerned about the springs and shocks on his government-issue car.
And though this is the fourth time I've been to this not exactly vast island, there are
still a few roads I haven't driven and lots of trackless hills and lochs scattered about which
I've been nowhere near. These hills are walked on, and worked on by shepherds, forest-
ers, estate workers and game keepers, but even so …
Whatever, if there is anything going on, nobody - probably very wisely - is talking
about it, certainly not to a daft bumptious distillery-bagging scribbler from Fife. Book or
not, research or not, I'm just a tourist here, but it's a good place to be a tourist.
Some of the ancient, semi-desolate flavour of this long-lived-in place came out when
Ann, Oliver and I took a turn off the main road from the Jura ferry and drove up to a
small loch set in the low hills near Ballygrant. Finlaggan is where, on a small island set
in the loch and connected to it then by a drowned causeway and now by a new wooden
walkway, there was once the political and spiritual headquarters of the Lord of The Isles.
This was from a time when Scotland was supposedly united, yet still contained vari-
ous chieftainships and clan lands which were something close to little primitive princip-
alities in their own right. Most separate - almost independent, in practice - was the Lord-
ship of The Isles. Back then social, political, economic and military cohesion was most
easily guaranteed by the relative ease of access to and from the sea, not the land. One
good ship would take you round any coast with material and matériel but getting to any-
where through the forests, crags and bogs meant hacking out a specific path or using the
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