A wee dram on Islay

A wee dram on Islay

It was, I thought, a rather fitting way to start my whistle-stop whisky tour of Scotland; a dram of Johnnie Walker Blue Label in the cool, calm confines of the British Airways Concorde Room at Heathrow Terminal 5.

There was a Glenlivet 18-year-old on offer too, but as I was headed to taste my way through the smoky, peaty whiskies of Islay it seemed fitting to enjoy a blend with a little backbone.

A dram or two, a smooth flight to Glasgow and a sound night in a small city hotel and I was up bright and early the next morning to begin four days of exploring the Western Highlands and the isle of Islay on a small-group tour with Scottish outfit Rabbie's.

I've travelled with Rabbie's in Scotland before and never fail to be impressed by the compact modern coaches – no more than 16 passengers – and guides both entertaining and knowledgeable. Euan Hunter, our guide this time, was to prove himself one of the best.

Once out of the morning traffic streaming into Glasgow the roads quickly emptied and herds of sheep replaced frazzled commuters. We left the spires and warehouses of Glasgow behind and headed for pastoral fields and craggy hillsides.

The Erskine Bridge over the River Clyde is the gateway to the Highlands, and within minutes the grey roofs were replaced by moss-covered stone walls, grassy pastures and tree-lined lanes.

It's barely an hour in the coach before we slow down to our first stop though; because you simply can't drive by the bonnie, bonnie shores of Loch Lomond without taking a wee wander. The enormous loch is billed as the 'queen' of Scottish lochs, all 34 000 of them, and it's not hard to see why: mist curling off crystal clear waters with a backdrop of Ben Lomond, one of the 280-odd 'munro' peaks that pepper the Scottish skyline.

The charming loch-side hamlet of Luss makes a worthwhile wander too: the village pier dates back to 1852 when tourist steamers would bring Glaswegians up to take the air and marvel at the views, sending back cargo of slate and cotton to feed the city's hungry mills.

From Loch Lomond the Old Military Road meanders across hillside covered in heather, bracken and wild grasses; a landscape so quintessentially Scottish it's almost a cliché. Happily, it's a view I never tire of admiring as our coach speeds onto the summit of Arrochar Pass; a fine place to stretch our legs and admire the view.

"This pass is also known as the 'Rest and be Thankful', which is what the road-builders did when they reached here," explains Euan, as we gaze out over the woodlands of the gorgeous Argyll Forest Park.

Then it's back in the coach and down through the trees and towards the seat of the Duke of Argyll: the charming town of Inveraray where the duke's impressive Inveraray Castle is a popular draw card.

And the village itself is an attractive spot; set on the shores of Loch Fyne, with a thriving fishing industry. The charming George Hotel dates back to 1778 and is the cosiest place in town for a meal, with local salmon, crab and mussels the highlights on the compact menu.

Across the road is another of Inveraray's must-visits: the Loch Fyne Whisky Shop, where owner Richard Joynson offers hundreds of malts from across Scotland. Whether you're a single malt aficionado or a whisky novice there is bound to be a bottle here you'll enjoy.

The drizzle had settled in for the afternoon as I wandered back onto the street, a miniature of their 'Inverarity' blend tucked safely in my backpack, and it was a pleasure to settle back into the Rabbie's coach. But it wasn't for long: past more grassy meadows and bubbling streams, Dunadd Fort soon rose above the boggy plains long reclaimed from the tidal lochs.

Turns out this valley of Glen Kilmartin is one of the most important archaeological sites in Great Britain, home to dozens of Bronze and Iron Age sites. Temple Wood is dotted with standing stones and burial mounds, and in the churchyard at Kilmartin historic tablets date back centuries.

And although there's little more to Dunadd – the 'fort of the [River] Add' – than a few hilltop stones, it's not hard to imagine this 2000-year-old castle dominating the landscape of Argyll.

"This glen was the gateway to Scotland from Iceland and Ireland, and the clans who ruled here were immensely powerful," says Euan with a hint of a grin. "But now it's time for a dram."

A bottle of Bunnahabhain appears magically from his bag, and tot measures are passed around.

"Sláinte," says Euan, sipping on the powerful single malt from the north coast of Islay. The island was our next stop.

Calm seas ensured our ferry trip from the mainland to Port Askaig was all smooth sailing, but with the island cloaked in darkness on arrival there was little more to do than settle into our cosy cottage in the grounds of Bowmore distillery and toast our arrival with a bottle of 12-year-old.

The next morning we were rested up and raring to go, with just two days to explore a few of the island's eight famous distilleries.

After a morning wander on the deserted sands of Machair Bay, Kilchoman is first up: perhaps fittingly as it's the youngest distillery on Islay. Opened in 2005, it's the first new Islay distillery in 125 years and a lovely spot for getting to grips with the process of malting, mashing and distilling. Tours and tastings bring the process to life, and while the Kilchoman malts are still young there's definite potential in this new kid on the block.

We leave Kilchoman to its malting and head to the salty village of Portnahaven, and then through wide open fields of Highland cows – all shaggy fringes and grumpy demeanour, like Rod Stewart after a bender – and to our next stop: Bruichladdich.

This loch-side distillery is something of a phoenix on Islay. Built in 1881 it was shuttered in 1994, only to reopen seven years later thanks to the vision – and £7-million kitty – of a London wine merchant.

Today it's one of the more innovative distilleries on Islay, combining traditional methods with cutting-edge branding and marketing. I left with a cap, brochure, whisky fudge and newfound respect for the 'Laddie. The afternoon hangover from the tastings came free.

The next morning dawned grey and gloomy, but it was perhaps fitting for the dramatic seaside distilleries of the south.

Islay is famous for its salty and pungent single malts, and the area is home to three of the island's most iconic distilleries. Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig all make big, bold malts that'll put the proverbial hairs on your chest. They're whiskies for head-over-heels single malt lovers, not beginners.

There are tours at all of them, where you'll learn about phenols and nosing, salt and peat. And, of course, you'll have a chance to taste, which is another good reason to consider a guided tour of the whisky isles: the designated driver. Although there's allegedly only one police office on Islay, there's no need to chance getting caught a few drams over the limit.

I was just as grateful the next day, when squalling rain and a stiff breeze offered up a bumpy ferry crossing to the mainland and a day of driving through the winding roads of Argyll. As the crofters' farmhouses and misty forests passed in a blur there was little to do but kick back and soak up the Scottish views and Euan's entertaining commentary.

A quirky church here, another gorgeous loch over there. Lunch in the bustling harbour town of Oban offered up lip-smacking fish and chips, and then it was back on the road with Glasgow in our sights. The lochs remained gunmetal grey, framed by green pastures and hillsides of bracken turning auburn in late autumn.

The mist finally lifted off the tips of the Douglas firs just as the Erskine Bridge came into view. Ancient lands and windswept islands had wafted by in four all-too-brief days, as I happily ticked another must-see destination off my bucket-list.

With my bags checked in to London, then home to Cape Town, and the British Airways lounge to look forward to, there only one way to pass the hours before take-off. Time for a final wee dram...

TRAVEL PLANNER

  • Visit Scotland is the national tourist organisation, and the best place to start your planning. www.visitscotland.com
  • British Airways offers daily flights from Johannesburg and Cape Town to London, with frequent connections onwards to both Glasgow and Edinburgh. Visit www.ba.com or call +27 11 441 8600.
  • Rabbie's is an award-winning tour company that specialises in small group guided tours of the United Kingdom. Their modern coaches, expert guides and guaranteed departures make them one of the best options for touring Britain. www.rabbies.com
  •  Visas are required by South African passport holders to visit the United Kingdom. Visa applications in South Africa are handled by VFS Global: www.vfs-uk-za.com.
First Published: 2013-02-01 Garden&Home magazine

Who is OnAnotherPlane...

RIchard Holmes headshot web smallRichard Holmes is a freelance travel, food and lifestyle writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. His work on African and international destinations has appeared in a wide range of consumer publications both in South Africa and abroad.