We are not a Village Institute, our name being derived from the local Parish of which we form a part. The parish, Kildalton, takes its name from an ancient church dedicated to St John the Divine, Daltain being the diminutive of the Gaelic word dalt, meaning “the little foster child or foster brother”, a poetical name for the beloved disciple. Our local village, Port Ellen, has its own institute, but on occasions we join with them for talks and demonstrations. We are part of the Isle of Islay, the most southerly of the Inner Hebrides, and about 100 miles by air from Glasgow, our nearest city. B.E.A. runs a daily service from Glasgow Airport (Abbotsinch) to Islay, with a call at Machrihanish Airport on the way to collect passengers from Campbeltown on the Mull of Kintyre. During the summer months there is a twice-daily service on certain days, so we are by no means an isolated island. Macbrayne’s run a regular daily steamer service to Islay, but it is rather a slow way of reaching the island, although a lovely route. One leaves by train from Glasgow to Gourock, steamer from there to Tarbert through the lovely Kyles of Bute, coach from Tarbert to West Loch Tarbert and steamer from there to Islay. People with cars can motor down to West Loch Tarbert and board the steamer there, but at present the accommodation for cars is limited. The steamer service is presently under review, as a new steamer will be required shortly, and various schemes have been suggested by Macbrayne’s and by the local people, but so far no decision has been reached. One of the suggestions was a regular ferry service between Islay and Jura, and between Jura and the mainland of Argyll, which was one of the routes the old drovers used to take, when their cattle were going to market on the mainland. The people of Islay await with much interest the result of the present negotiations.
On the island itself there is no regular bus service, but buses connect with the steamer and air service. There are many private cars on the island, but the roads are not overcrowded and we do not have the problem of “traffic jams”.
The steamer calls at Port Ellen and Port Askaig on alternate days. The roads are narrow but the surface is good, and motoring on the island is a pleasure. The present airport is being extended and it is anticipated that soon B.E.A. will be able to land Viscounts on the island. The air service to Islay was first started in the early 1930’s with small planes landing on a tidal beach and later in a small field. The site of the present airport was built up during the last war. Before the war a Dr Campbell had left money to meet the cost of flying patients to hospital on the mainland, and from this the present very efficient Air Ambulance Service grew up. It has saved many lives in the Western Isles.
Historically and from a geological point of view the island is full of interest, and it is a paradise for the ornithologist, but at the moment we are concerned only with our part of the parish of Kildalton. A main road skirts the area from Port Ellen to Claggan Bay, and we will take you on a journey along this road, which inspired the late Harry Lauder to write his famous song “Keep right on to the end of the road”. Leaving the village of Port Ellen behind, we climb a hill past Farkin Lodge, where we have a lovely view of the island of Texa. Here, so the story goes, a disciple of St Columba, called Cainneach, found a staff, which he had left behind in Iona. A monastery was founded at the spot and it must have been a wonderful sanctuary in troubled times. The ruins of the old building can still be seen and in the Edinburgh Museum are some carved stones from Texa, sent there by the late Mrs Ramsay of Kildalton for safekeeping.
There is also a small bronze vessel, weighing about 4 oz., which was found in the Chapel of Texa in 1881. It was thought to be a lachrimatory. One of the stones has the following inscription on it : “Hec est crux Regnaldi Johis de Y sla.” It probably refers to John of Islay who died about 1380. Last century there were still people living on the island but it is now given up to the sheep and goats, with shags and peregrine falcons round the rocky shoreline, and snipe on the marshland where wild orchids bloom in profusion. The goats are believed to be descended from domestic animals and are not the true wild goats to be found in some parts of the neighbouring Mull of Oa in Islay. There are caves on the cliffs facing the Mull of Kintyre, where the guano lies deep and the rock pigeons come fluttering out when disturbed. There is a cave on a little hill on the island, where the goats go for their last rest, and in it are traces of built-up steps, and it is believed that this was once used for worship. One of our members tells us that one of her ancestors was born in the cave, where the family had sought shelter when a gale blew the roof off their home.
We continue on our way and can see some of the buildings at Laphroaig Distillery, and it is in a hall here that we hold our meetings. Before coming to Laphroaig we pass Portintruain Farm on the shore side, a whitewashed farmhouse nestling beside a little bay where sea trout can be found on occasions. Almost opposite is another whitewashed house where the Excise Officer for the Distillery lives. His house is at the corner of a road, which leads up to the farms of Brahunisary and Kilbride, presently owned by a Dutchman, and below these farms is crofting land let to various people in Port Ellen village. Where the crofts are now there was once a church called Cill Lasrach and a village, but all that remain of these are ruins and some fine standing stones, similar to those found in other parts of the island. The ordnance survey map shows two old burial grounds in this area, one in a field opposite the Excise House, and the other below Brahunisary Farm. We come now to the entrance road to Laphroaig (the place of the hollow) with its woods on the side of the road, the Distillery buildings down in the hollow by the sea and the workers’ cottages on the high ground.
The trees are of recent planting, from the 1930’s onwards, and are mostly Sitka spruce, with some sycamore, horse chestnut, alders and willows by the roadway. They are a great improvement on the old boggy ground they cover, and make a lovely setting for the whitewashed buildings. Roe deer find shelter there, and the tawny owl can be seen in the evenings on its favourite perch, but one can easily miss it , so close does it lie, seeming to be a part of the tree. Distilling is one of the traditional industries on the island and in our parish there are three distilleries – Laphroaig, the nearest to Port Ellen, then Lagavulin (The Place of the Mill) about a mile farther on, and Ardbeg (The Little Hill) another mile beyond. They are small communities on their own, each with its distillery buildings – maltings, mash house, still house and warehouses, offices and workers’ cottages, with the house for the excise officer which each must provide. In the old days, before the 19th century, many farmers on the island made whisky from their surplus grain, but when licences for making malt and whisky became compulsory this was discontinued, and only a few survived to become the whisky distilleries of today.
No doubt illicit distilling went on for many years, with the whisky smuggled to the mainland in small boats, but this was stamped out by the Excise and only the licensed distilleries remained. The farmers used to grow inferior barley called `bore’ and this was used locally for the making of whisky, but with the increase in distilling it was not economic to use this type of barley and the growing of it died out. Now the distilleries buy their barley from barley merchants on the mainland, using Scotch barley from the Lothians and the Borders, English barley from Yorkshire and Norfolk, and Australian barley. The Islay whisky is famous for its peaty flavour. There are many ‘peat banks’ on the island and each distillery has its own particular ground where they cut their peat. The old traditional method of cutting has continued until the present day. This year some of the peat for the distilleries was cut by machinery and as it was a very good summer it was quite successful, but there still remains some doubt as to whether the peat cut by machinery would dry properly in a wet summer. The machine makes a bigger cut than hand tools do and so the peat takes longer to dry. But the traditional method is also best if there is not much room for the machine to work and so it will still remain, maybe alongside the machine.
Laphroaig, as the name implies, lies in a hollow and the distillery buildings surround a little bay. Up to 1939 coal and barley were brought in by puffers, which discharged into small boats and they in turn into carts. This employed about twelve men and, while effective, was not the most economic method in modern times. Now all coal and barley are discharged at the pier in Port Ellen and brought to the distillery by motor lorries. The puffers still operate – they are small coastal vessels plying to the various western islands and made famous by Neil Munro in his famous “Para Handy” stories. When the Laphroaig distillery was first started in 1815, the farm was more important than the distillery. The Johnston family, who leased the ground, built up the distillery and continued to run it until 1954, when the last descendant died. The tradition still continues, and many of the workers have been working at the distillery all their days, following their fathers and grandfathers. The island belonged to the Campbells of Shawfield up to the 1850s, when it was sold to the Morrisons, and they in turn sold the Kildalton area to John Ramsay, who then owned and worked Port Ellen Distillery. His son Ian Ramsay, who succeeded him, sold the distilleries in 1921 to the tenants, in the case of Laphroaig to the Johnstons. The Johnstons doubled the capacity of Laphroaig distillery, and the building of warehouses has continued since then. This year the still house is being increased so that the capacity will be greater than ever. The workers’ cottages are modern, most of them built since 1945, and there is a community hall adjoining the office, where dances are held, and where the Kildalton S.W.R.I. hold their meetings. What was once a stockyard has been converted into a rock garden. The old house garden, although now surrounded by warehouses, has been kept up and gives a unique appearance to the distillery. Each year a Fete is held there for the local Playing Fields and the S.W.R.T. are very active in their support of this, helping with teas and the various sales tables. It has become a very popular event with locals and visitors, and other S.W.R.I. Institutes organise an outing for this day to see the gardens and enjoy a traditional Scottish tea, and the fun of the Fete.
Above the Distillery lies the house of Ardenistle and the farm, where a Canadian started a horticultural project in recent years and sells fresh vegetables, tomatoes and flowers to the local village. It is proving a success and a great boon to the local shops and hotels. In a wind-swept island such as ours, it was necessary to provide shelter belts for planting but once this is established it is possible to grow most flowers, and roses do very well. Fruits such as strawberries, raspberries, currants and gooseberries are very rewarding. The house of Ardenistle has a commanding view over the Island of Texa, with the Mull of Kintyre beyond it and Ireland to the south-west. The sunsets over the Mull of Oa with their orange and green tints are quite sensational. Opposite the road end at Ardenistle on a little hill is a ruin, once the home of the Islay bard, Duncan Johnston. The house, called Druimantorran, was occupied until the late 1930s but the roof has fallen in and it has become just another ruin. Duncan Johnston’s Gaelic songs are traditional, with a special class for them in the National Mod and at the local mod, and we are very proud that his home is in our parish. His songs can be found in a book called ” Cronan-nan-Tonn ” which means ” Crooning of the Waves.”
On our way to Lagavulin we pass over a bridge which is said to be haunted by the ghost of a late reveller who fell into the burn and was drowned at this spot. The local people do not like to walk over this bridge at night by themselves. From the bridge we have our first glimpse of Surnaig, but before we reach it on our left is the Church of Kildalton, built by Tan Ramsay in 1910 in memory of his mother. This church is still used every Sunday. It has a thriving Sunday school, and is most attractively situated with the old bell on a tripod on the hill above the church. Nearby is the old manse, built about 1861 to replace the previous one, which was at Surnaig. It is no longer used as a manse, however, and was recently purchased by Mrs Freda Ramsay, the widow of Ian Ramsay, the son of the Ramsay who built the church. It is now called Surnaig I louse, and from it one looks down on Surnaig Bay. The Rev. James McKinnon, parish minister for 42 years, (lied in the manse in 1939. His long service to the community is commemorated by a memorial window in St John’s Church at Port Ellen, where the majority of his parishioners worshipped. His only son was killed in action in the first World War and the bard Duncan Johnston wrote a poem to his memory. Almost opposite the manse gate is the road down to Surnaig Bay, and to where the old manse used to be. The glebe lands are farmed by a family MacAffer whose ancestors lived around these parts for generations. Their house is on the shore with the Surnaig burn flowing past it to the sea, and on a ridge behind are traces of the old manse and gardens, and farther round are the ruins of other buildings.
On the opposite side of the Bay lie the ruins of Dun Naomhaig (Dunyveg) Castle, the last stronghold of the MacDonalds of Islay. Above Surnaig was a fort which, with the castle, provided a look-out for enemy approaching, and the well which supplied the water to the castle is at Surnaig. It was believed that the water was piped under the bay to the castle opposite. The well is still used, and provides spring water for the farm. There must have been quite a small community there at one time, but now only one family remains. The bay is sheltered and popular for bathing. Swans can be seen there and wild duck come in, and the local people have their small rowing boats and motor boats for fishing. There are good places round the shore for sea fishing, the most com-mon catch being saithe, lythe and mackerel. The former was dried and salted in the old days, and provided a winter diet for many. Nowadays this is not so much used, as deep frozen fish can be purchased in the village of Port Ellen. Around the rocks can also be found the sea weed that is called “Carrageen” or Trish Moss and can be used for making a kind of blanc mange. The seaweed is collected and dried in the sun, and can be stored for a long time. It is still used locally. When the seaweed is collected, it is washed in water and laid out to bleach on the rocks. The old people used to store it in a pillowslip, in a cool place, and only a little is required to make a pudding. A sprinkling of the dried carrageen is boiled with a pint of milk until it becomes of the consistency of corn flour and then it is put through a sieve. This is then mixed with a little milk and sugar and flavoured (some like it flavoured with whisky but that is a matter of taste) and put into a wet mould to set. It has a wonderful flavour and is still very popular. It can be purchased in packets in most of the health stores on the mainland.
We now retrace our steps to the main road and to the first of the Distillery houses at Lagavulin. These have been built within the last twenty years and were built on the site of the old church of Lagavulin. The first church was built in 1730 and continued in use until 1824, when a new building replaced it. The ruins were still there until 1951, when they were taken down so that the stones could be used to build single storied semi-detached cottages with gardens in modern style. They have a lovely site looking over Surnaig Bay. Surnaig is much older than Lagavulin, which is first mentioned in the 18th century, in the time of the Campbells of Shawfield, At that time there was a receiving house for Mails at Lagavulin, and in 1836 the meeting of the Tacksmen of Islay recorded the following: ” It was, moved by the Rev. A. Cameron, and seconded by Colin McLean, Esq., that Port Ellin is the most centrical situation in that part of the Island and that the Receiving house be therefore removed from Lagvoulini to Port Ellin, and that the sum of Four pounds three shillings be now apportioned as follows: Three Guineas to the person who may be appointed to keep the Receiving house at Port Ellin, and one pound to be paid to a person in Lagvoulin for taking the charge of letters in, that neighbourhood. The Runner for Kildalton Parish after delivering the Letters at Port Ellin to go on to Lagvoulin as usual. This motion having been made and unanimously carried after a discussion whether there should not be a separate Receiving House at Lagvoulin.” The change was duly made, and in 1837 the Tacksmen decided to “Ascertain the best mode of getting a Post Office established at Port Ellin for the convenience of the Parish of Kildalton and Oa.” Now Port Ellen is the Head Post Office for Islay, with no post office at Lagavoulin.
It is interesting to note in the “Book of Islay” that Surnaig is mentioned as having a licence to brew, and Dunyveg as a “Malt Mill” and also “a Myln.” This was in 1686, so Lagavulin is well named the Hollow of the Mill or the Place of the Mill. The Distillery has been in operation since early in the 19th century, and there was a very close connection between the Johnstons of Laphroaig and Lagavulin, where a family Graham were closely associated with the Distillery. Lagavulin Distillery is known locally as “The White Horse” Distillery, being owned by The White horse distillers. The late Sir Peter Mackie of “White Horse” fame was one of the outstanding characters in the trade in the late 19th and early 20th century. His firm acted as agents for Laphroaig until 1907 when there was a dispute between the two firms and the agency was taken away from Lagavulin. Sir Peter Mackie said he would make Laphroaig at Lagavulin and built what was known as Malt Mill there, with a still an exact replica of the one at Laphroaig, and he enticed the brewer from there to work for him. The result was not the same – Malt Mill drew water from one side of a hill and Laphroaig from the other, and the whiskies were quite different. This illustrates how important water is to the character of the whisky made.
Many people ask why Islay should have so many distilleries the answer is in the water and peat and the climate for maturing. There are nine working distilleries on the island, including one at Port Ellen, which had not worked since 1930 but came into operation again in 1967. While there is a similarity about them, they are all different in character, but they are much sought after by the blender as providing the “essence” which makes the blend different.
Recently Lagavulin Distillery has been rebuilt and its capacity increased, and they do not make Malt Mill any more, although they did continue making it until a few years ago. The plant has been modernised, but without losing some of the old traditional methods of malting and distilling. At one time a pier was used for taking in the barley, coal, etc., but it is no longer used. Now they take their supplies from Port Ellen or from the pier at the neighbouring distillery of Ardbeg, which we will be visiting shortly.
The main road divides the distillery buildings from the farm buildings. It goes past some old cottages, which have been modernised and look very attractive with their whitewashed walls and flowers at the doors and well kept gardens at the back. In the old days the farmer and distiller were one, but now most of the farms around the distillery are let, although the ground is still the property of the distillers. In the hills above Lagavulin can be seen ruins, where there was once a small village called Ballynaughton. The name means the home of Naughton, who was one of the followers of Angus McKay, an aggressive man who is reported as taking possession of land in Islay by force around 1210. He built a castle at Loch-na-Guil known now as the Lily Pond, a few miles further along our road. He is buried at Druim-na-Scrath about halfway between Lagavulin and Ardbeg.
We continue on our way past the Lagavulin buildings, and the Excise Officer’s house, and on our right there is a gate and roadway, with a sign recently put up by the Islay Tourist Association–“Dunyveg, Castle.” it has been already mentioned as the last stronghold of the MacDonalds in Islay. The old castle, though now a ruin, is on an imposing site and commands a wonderful view of anyone approaching from sea or land. Graham in his Carved Stones of Islay, published about 1895, quotes from an Old Statistical Account of the late 18th century: “This castle (Dun Naomhaic or Dunvvea) is built on a large rock, which is surrounded by the sea on all sides except the north. There are still on it the remains of many old houses that had been built for barracks and storehouses; some of the cellars and a baker’s house are still visible here. There is a very strong wall on the north side between the castle and the barracks, and the sidewalls of a large gate are still standing. This gate is called the iron gate, and it is reported here that the fort was supplied with water from a small river that ran past the end of the manse., and that it was conducted in pipes under the sea, across the bay to the distance of about half a mile.” As already mentioned, there is a well beside the burn at Surnaig, that is reported to have supplied the castle with water. It was only when this water was cut off that the MacDonalds had to surrender.
As Dunyveg was one of the strongholds of the MacDonalds, it interesting to note at this point their struggle to retain Islay. At one time Islay was the most important of the Hebridean being the seat of the Lord of the Isles – the MacDonalds. They continued to hold this title until the late 15th century, but even then the MacDonalds were still in possession of Islay. After a fight between the MacDonalds and the MacLeans of Duart, in Mull, in 1598, King James VI. and his counsellors determined to put an end to the lawlessness prevailing. The King allowed the Earl of Argyll to establish his kinsman, Sir John Campbell of Cawdor, on the island, and so the ownership was transferred to him. When the Islay MacDonalds retaliated by seizing Dunyveg, a fleet of four ships was sent with soldiers to recover it. This they managed to do eventually, and Sir John Campbell took possession. But this was not the end of Dunyveg. Although in 1631 permission was given for a “casting down” of the castle, Sir Alasdair MacDonald who fought beside Montrose in the Civil War refortified it for the King and left his father Colla Clotach in command of the garrison. Parliamentary forces under the great General Leslie besieged it, but succeeded only when they found and cut the water supply. When Colla came out to negotiate under a flag of truce, he was seized and hanged from a mast which is said to have been taken from his own galley. With this treacherous and sad act, ended the history of Dunyveg. Now only the ruin remains. New houses have been built on the peninsula leading to the Castle.
The Campbells of Cawdor continued in possession of Islay until 1726, when they sold it to Daniel Campbell of Shawfield, and the time when he and his descendants had possession of the island, from 1726 to the 1850s, saw the disappearance of lawlessness and the arrival of improvements in agriculture, roads and ports. He sold out in the 1850s to Charles Morrison, who retained most of the island, but sold our parish of Kildalton and Oa to John Ramsay, who was then the distiller at Port Ellen Distillery. He was succeeded by his son, who gradually sold the property but gave the tenants the first opportunity of purchasing. This was about 1921 and the three distilleries in our parish – Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg – then were offered to the tenants who took over as owners of the land. The farms attached went with them, but except for Laphroaig they were let to tenants. The distillers continued to work Laphroaig Farm until 1965, when it was let to a neighbouring farmer.
At one time the three distillery farms were all dairy farms and this is still true of Lagavulin and Laphroaig, but Ardbeg is now used for beef cattle and sheep. In Lagavulin the farmer has a small shop where, in addition to selling his milk and potatoes, he keeps groceries and cigarettes for the convenience of the village of Lagavulin. There is a creamery on the island which makes excellent cheese, so the dairy farmer can sell his surplus milk to the creamery and is assured of a steady income. This is arranged through the Scottish Milk Marketing Board, as in other parts of Scotland.
Continuing on our way, we see Ardbeg Distillery in a hollow down by the sea. The distillery started around 1815 and is situated round a bay studded with rocks. There is a pier, used by puffers to deliver goods not only to Ardbeg Distillery but to the distillers of Lagavulin and Laphroaig too, when Port Ellen pier is not available. At a little bay, near the distillery, St Columba is reported as having landed while on his way to Iona. What was once the distiller’s house was converted in recent years into six workmen’s cottages, with wonderful views across the bay.
There is an excise house, with a Welshman as officer, and he is the conductor of the local Gaelic junior choir, and the local senior choir. The former are the daughters and sons of our members, and we do what we can to encourage the conductor in his effort. The choirs have won cups at the local Mods, and the National Mod, especially the junior choir with their action songs. The conductor’s wife is also the producer for the local Dramatic Society, and can train them well in action. The distillery draws its water from the Solam Lochs, about three miles above them, on the ground belonging to Callumkill. This farm and its surroundings have an interesting history. The approach to the house is almost opposite the road down to Ardbeg, and the house has a commanding view over Ardbeg to the island of Texa and the Mull of Kintyre. Called in former days Killcolmkill (the Church of St. Columba’s Church or Chapel of Columba), it was the site of an early religious building. A cave beside the front lawn is of the shape and type of beehive cell found near such settlements. There are several in lona. The interior stonework, however, is not beehive, having been built up about the 18th century. People have lived at Callumkill for over I000 years, and at the moment the owner, a Dr McGown, who lives there, is our County Councillor and his wife one of our very active members.
There is an excellent supply of spring water, and on a hill near the house is a well into which offerings used to be thrown. There are horseshoes in it, and many coins in the cracks of the rocks. It is known as St Michael’s Well.
Nearby are the ruins of what is locally called The Plague village. At least eight or nine cottages must have been there. The story goes that a ship with the plague on board called at Ardbeg, and the villagers went down and caught the disease, and the whole village was wiped out. This was in the early part of the 19th century, when cholera was rife in many parts.
There are other signs of habitation on the 3000 acres of the farm, with ruins and lazybed cultivation, and old peat cuttings, On Cann More, a hill nearby, is a large stone arch with a cairn on the ridge behind, and remains of a building called the Red Fort, which was used in connection with Dunyveg Castle, possibly as a look-out.
Now the only habitations are the farmhouse, and two farm workers’ cottages. It is principally a sheep farm. The red deer are quite numerous in the hills above the house, and roe deer are sometimes seen in the low ground. Pheasants are plentiful and Woodcock later in the season, and there are still some rabbits, which are very difficult to exterminate in the rocky ground.
When we pass Callumkill road end, on the left are the house and School of Ardbeg. This is their centenary year. The school was built by the Ramsays in 1866, as it was considered too far for the children to go to the then existing school at Kildalton some miles way. Over thirty children attend the school, which has two teachers and a high standard of general education. The children attend from the age of five until they sit the eleven plus exam, when they go to the modern secondary school at Bowmore. It is a very pleasant school to visit, as the teachers have trained the children well and the discipline is good.
Travelling teachers of art, music and physical education visit the school on certain days, and at the end of the session our Institute entertains them for their prize giving and presents the prizes. They in turn entertain us with singing, reciting, etc., and show us their handwork for the season. The local minister visits them weekly and presents a prize for the best essay on a subject he chooses. At Christmas time the Institute gives them a party in our hall, with presents from Father Christmas, and the minister is an excellent M.C. on these occasions, with our local councillor acting as Father Christmas. The ladies have a very busy time preparing the presents, and the tea, but it is some-thing we all enjoy, children and adults. In Ardbeg is also the Post Office for the district, where the local pensioners can draw their pensions. It saves them a long journey to Port Ellen. Ardbeg is the last village in our parish, and we now proceed to a district with a very scattered population, though the three little villages and the country district of Kildalton, as the locals call it, are well served with vans selling groceries etc. It was in this parish too that the Post Office, after the last war, inaugurated the first Post Office van for delivery of letters and parcels. Before that, the postman had to cycle many miles delivering mail, and it must have been quite a burden at times, as parcel mail to the islands is very heavy. Many people buy their household goods and personal clothing by mail order.
Leaving Ardbeg behind, we pass through an old gateway with a small cottage at the gate – once the entrance to Kildalton estate, but now looking rather neglected. The cottage was once the Post Office for the district, but this is now in the roadway leading down to Ardbeg Distillery, and latterly it was occupied by an old man who died only this year. Now it is unoccupied, and in a few years it will probably become another ruin. It over-looks a lovely bay called Ceann an t-Sailean, where the seals are often to be seen sporting themselves on the rocks. Swans and eider duck can also be seen, with numerous waders on the shore. It is a fascinating bay well worth a long visit, with a lovely stretch of shore and grass, an ideal spot for a picnic. The road from here is mostly single line and a sharp lookout is needed for cars on their way down to Ardbeg. Passing places are provided, however, and as most people drive along to see the scenery, there is no problem of speeding.
The road now leads to the wooded area surrounding Kildalton House, but it is sad to see the gates locked, the gatehouse falling into ruin and the policies looking neglected. The house was built in 1866 by John Ramsay and replaced the old house of Ardimersay, which was used by the Campbells of Shawfield as a shooting lodge or cottage. It was, I believe, a lovely house with a thatched roof and a long porch along the front, under which hung stags’ heads, the trophies of the shoot, while the rear was E-shaped with a garden surrounding the house. It is in one of the most sheltered parts of the island, and even in its neglected state the garden still has tropical plants, brought by its former owners. They include many rare rhododendrons, bamboo canes, palm and magnolia trees. When John Ramsay took over Ardimersay he lived there for some time, but the roof was requiring repair and he was advised to pull down the old house and build a new one. This he did, and the present house of local stone took the place of the whitewashed thatched house. Kildalton House was built on a large scale, with an imposing frontage and lawn, a hall which required two fireplaces for heating, and a lovely broad staircase leading to the main bedrooms. On the ground floor were the dining and drawing rooms, and the libraries, all built for gracious living.
John Ramsay was succeeded by his son, who, in 1921, sold the house and the estate surrounding it to Talbot Clifton, an explorer from Lytham St. Annes, in Lancashire, whose ancestors had owned the land there since the time of William Rufus. His wife, a descendant of Nell Gwynne and Charles II, first met him when her father was attached to one of the South American embassies. They were a handsome couple, both very tall, and they enjoyed life in Islay, but Talbot Clifton still continued his travels and he died in the early 1930s in Tenerife. His body was embalmed and brought back to Islay, and he was buried on a nearby hill at a spot where his gravestone could be seen from the top rooms of Kildalton House. His widow is said to have spent many evenings praying for his soul, in a bedroom draped in black. They were Catholics and he died without a priest. Mrs Clifton and her two sons and three daughters continued to live in the house until about 1938, when it was let to Sir John MacTaggart, a builder from Glasgow.
Then came the war and it became the officers’ mess for the Royal Engineers who were building the new airport. The house was occupied intermittently by the younger son, who had married during the war, and the Laird brought the Chinese Ambassador, Wellington Koo, for a short stay in 1944. Since then he has come only once, on a short visit. The mother by that time was occupying another house on the estate, Cnoc House, where her younger son used to visit her. Now she is dead, and none of the family visits the house or the island, although the house and its policies are still in the hands of Harry Clifton, the Laird. Part of the estate was sold to Sir John MacTaggart’s sons, who had rented the estate just before the war, and they converted one of the old farmhouses, Ardmore, into a lovely holiday home for their children. Kildalton House and policies are now neglected – the house has dry rot, and decay has set in. Although, within the last few years, various people have been interested in buying the property for development, nothing has happened so far. The latest scheme was to turn the house into a hotel and build holiday homes among the trees. Such a scheme, I believe, was actually put before the planning authorities, but at the last moment the Laird withdrew from the scheme. The local people await the next development. It would be a lovely spot for holiday homes, with trees around each home to give privacy, for it is very sheltered, and there are some lovely beaches within the property.
As we leave the gatehouse on our right, we come to a few cottages on our left, with lovely hedges of fuchsia, and one of these has been modernised and is presently occupied, while the others have also been occupied from time to time. Inside the policies is a carpet of crocus in the early spring, followed by primroses and bluebells or wild hyacinths, and around the house are many daffodils, which have naturalised there. Even in neglect it is lovely.
We proceed on our way past ruins of other houses and on our left we see the Lily Pond where Angus MacKay built a castle, with Cnoc House, on our right, where Mrs Clifton used to stay. It used to be four cottages but she had the dividing walls knocked down and doors put in, and modern amenities. It had a lovely site on a sheltered bay, safe for bathing. The bay, just beyond the house, is a favourite spot for picnics and there the water is always warmer than elsewhere around the island. A steep hill leads one on to what is known as Eila’s Brae. It gained its name from a Danish princess, Tula or Eila, who is buried there. Some say she gave her name to the island.
We continue past the old kennels, no longer used as such, though the house is still occupied, and past more ruined cottages and good farmland, where the red deer can be seen near the roadside and an occasional roe deer crossing the road. We come now to Tallant, the gamekeeper’s house for the Ardmore estate, almost opposite a signpost “Kildalton Cross.” A narrow road leads down to the old church, formerly the parish church of Kildalton, and used as such until the new church was built in Lagavulin in 1730. There is now no roof on it, but the four walls and windows still remain, and inside are many old carved stones, mentioned in Graham’s Carved Stones of Islay. One shows an armoured figure with a sword, and to the right of the head a small figure in a niche, and under the elbow on the same side a little dog.
The church, which was there in the 16th century, may have replaced a much older church about the same place. In the churchyard is the famous Kildalton Cross of Celtic origin, one of only two remaining in Scotland, the other one being in Iona. These two crosses, Kildalton in Islay and St. Martin’s in Iona, are known as the type with the encircling glory, and the high crosses of Ireland mostly show the same form. Various biblical scenes are depicted on the Kildalton Cross. In 1882 Mrs Ramsay of Kildalton had a cast of it made in Portland cement and she presented this to the Scottish National Museum of Antiquities, where it can still be seen. Until then the cross had been standing in a slanting position on a roughly dressed stone, which was not providing sufficient foundation. Mrs Ramsay had it straightened, but left the rough stone still visible above the new steps. It is said that human remains of more than one body were found under it when this straightening took place.
Outside the churchyard is another cross inside a railing, but whose grave it is no one seems to know – possibly someone who was excommunicated or for some reason was refused burial in the churchyard. The road past the old church leads down to Ardmore House, now owned by Sir Ian MacTaggart, and deer can often be seen in the wood near the church and in the adjoining fields. It is a very peaceful burial ground, but what the cross commemorates and who was buried there seems to be lost in history.
We now resume our journey along the main road to the farmhouse of Kintour, where one of the farm hands for Ardmore estate now lives, and past that to the new house erected for the farm manager opposite the old school and schoolhouse of Kintour – now no longer used as a school. It was closed about 1945 and the children are taken down by car to Ardbeg School, or by car to Ardbeg to join the bus for Bowmore School, if they are over the 11-plus stage. Recently the old school and house was occupied by one of the Ardmore estate workers, who had eleven children – almost a school once more! A little further on we come to the farm of Trudernish – the Enchanted Cape – and in the woods above it there is a little chapel, probably one of the most ancient in Islay. It is called Cill Chuibain – which is thought to mean the Church of the Hollow or Recess, because of its position hidden in thick copse wood and difficult to find. A little below the church is a well of lovely clear spring water, to which tradition assigns healing power. Votive offerings were deposited here until the end of last century, and perhaps even since then. There was at one time a group of forts along this eastern side of Islay, not far from the Church of Kildalton. All lay within a mile of each other, and they may have served to protect a settlement, which is known to have existed in this area in early days. With small boats it was a favourable spot for communication with the mainland.
We now come along our road to Claggan Bay where tons of gravel lie in banks from the sea to the roadway – just waiting for development. Perhaps this will come in the future, but meantime it is a paradise for picnics with a small sandy bay, the large gravel bay and springy turf sheltered by a small hill. At the end of the bay is a bridge, under which flows a small river good for fishing. Beyond this bay there is only one habitation, the farm of Ardtalla, and the road up to it now goes no further, so we have come to the “End of the Road.” Only a path over very rough ground leads beyond Ardtalla to the lighthouse of McArthur’s Head. At one time there was a farm at Proaig, beyond Ardtalla, and a pier there, and ruins still remain of what seems to have been quite a little village, but the farm is no more. The land has been given up to the deer and even the golden eagle may be found there.
The McArthurs, the family who lived at Proaig, were famous as pipers to the MacDonalds, and it is interesting to note that in 1741 the tenant of Proaig was one Charles McAllister of Tarbert, which is on the mainland of Argyll – almost opposite Proaig. When Islay was handed over by Royal Charter to the Campbells of Cawdor about 1621, one of the conditions was the payment of an annual rent of £500 sterling, which has since been due to the crown and is paid by owners of lands in the island to this day. The Stent Book of Islay compiled by Mrs Lucy Ramsay of Kildalton gives some interesting records of the meetings of the “Local Parliament” in Islay from 1718 to 1843, when the annual meetings of the Tacksmen of Islay came to an abrupt termination. These meetings assessed what the various payments were for the year, and covered such things as The Surgeon’s Salary, The Schools of Islay, the Postmaster’s Salary, the Pacquet Allowance, the upkeep of the Churches, and generally anything that pertained to the welfare of the community. The money was paid by the various tenants according to the value of their land, so it amounted to what we now call our “rates”, but there seem to have been no Government grants to cover special outlays.
It is interesting to note that the tenants at certain times were bound to give labour to repair the roads, and in July 1756 the following appears to have been agreed : “The Gentlemen of the County and the Surveyors of the Roads of Islay appoint that the whole inhabitants of Islay work on the roads three days in summer and three in harvest when the crop is gathered. And nominate the following person to be Overseers Viz for Kildalton parish: Alex. Campbell of Ardmore, Archd. Campbell of in Trudernish with all the men from Knock to Proaig ”
This shows that there must have been quite a number of homes in this part – at present all the men from Knock to Proaig could be counted on one hand. The population statistics show that Kildalton Parish had nearly 2000 inhabitants in 1801, and that this had increased to 3,315 in 1841, but by 1901 it was down to 1,872, and in 1951 it was 1,318. This includes Port Ellen, and the Mull of Oa. In the 19th century many of the inhabitants left Islay to seek their fortune in other lands, such as Canada, U.S.A., Australia and New Zealand. From our part of the parish of Kildalton, in the early 1860s, many let for Canada. The proprietor encouraged them to do so, and in some cases they had no alternative, as he divided up the land into large farms, and the small crofters had to leave. He did assist them with their passage to Canada, however, and while at the time there must have been much heart breaking at leaving the island, the descendants found a more prosperous life there than they would have had in Islay.
The drift from the land has continued. While the distilleries on the island are prospering and expanding, in our area farming is not progressing. The distilleries have built modern houses and each is virtually a little village community on its own but with common ties of school for the children, church and community efforts such as choir, dramatic club and women’s guild, and the S.W.R.I.
The distilleries are friendly, one to the other, and this was very obvious during the seamen’s strike, when they helped one another during the shortage of supplies and virtually pooled their resources. The three farms at the distilleries do not employ many men, being worked by families. The three distilleries employ about forty men on an average, but they help the community by employing extra labour to discharge boats, and by their need for joiners, engineers, etc. for repair work, men to cut and lift peats, and lorries to convey their goods to and from the piers.
The land beyond Ardbeg is in the hands of two proprietors – Harry Clifton with Kildalton estate, and Sir Ian MacTaggart with Ardmore estate. The former lets out some of his fields for grazing but there is no farm as such on his property, which is going to waste. Sir Ian MacTaggart has all the farms in his own hands, controlled by a farm manager, and the old farmhouses are occupied by his workmen. The cottages that were used for farm workers are no longer occupied, and now only a few families live in what was once a community of three or four hundred.
Unfortunately, there is no work for girls on the island, except the odd job in the distillery offices, the Post Office, telephone exchange or local shops. Many of them, unable to find work in Islay, drift away to the mainland and are lost to the island. Many take training in nursing. Of those who train as teachers, quite a number come back to teach on the island. The local hotels employ a few girls in the summer time, but it is mostly seasonal work and there are few openings for domestic work on a weekly basis, although some find work for a few hours daily.
The boys are usually more fortunate in finding work to do, but the more intelligent or more academic-minded complete their education at Oban or Dunoon, and that is the beginning of the drift away. Quite a number train for the sea, as one would expect on an island, but often they come back after many years and spend their last years on the island. When they are young the town appeals to many of them, and as they can always find some job there they are encouraged to go. They marry and settle down, and again do not return until they retire, except for holidays.
During the summer months the villages are all very busy with holidaymakers. Some come back to see their parents, or their grandparents, but there are increasing numbers coming back from Canada, Australia, etc., to see the land of their forebears. It is most interesting to meet these returning wanderers and to realise what a deep sense of belonging to the island they have, even after so many years away from it. The islander welcomes the tourist or traveller and Islay is noted for its friendly welcome, its peacefulness and its lovely beaches. The local halls ring with the sound of music and dancing during the summer months. Gaelic is still spoken but with the advent of new people to the island – both at the distilleries and in farming – the children do not speak the Gaelic tongue as much as they did fifty years ago. However, they have kept up the local tradition in the Mod, and Islay is noted for its Gaelic singers, and its choirs. All the visitors like to take part in a Ceilidh when they are on the island – that is a getting together for a song and a dance in a very informal way, with a cup of tea and eats some time during the evening.
Each year in the spring, we have a visit from a party of foreign students, under the auspices of the British Council. Our Institute organises a Ceilidh for them, when they are our guests, and we try to teach them some of our Gaelic songs and our local dances. While modern dancing is practised on the island, there are always some of the old favourites during the evening, and it is quite fascinating to watch some of our friends from Africa dancing an eightsome reel. They pick up the steps very quickly.
Prior to 1949 there was no electricity on the island, except for a few private plants supplying light only. With the bringing of electricity to the island by the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, a new era for the housewife was started. The Hydro Board generated electricity from diesel engines at Bowmore, but recently we were connected through Jura to the mainland supply, with the diesel engines as a stand-by. In winter the streets of our villages arc lit by electricity, the houses have electric cookers instead of the old fires or paraffin cookers, and the housewife can have all modern electric appliances for the home, which helps to bring us in line with the amenities of the city dweller. We can have television, although the best results come from Northern Ireland, and the islander no longer feels cut off from the mainland.
Electricity meant also deep freezers in the shops, with packaged foods readily available, and a new outlook for the island housewife, whose work is lightened by washing machines, electric cleaners, the electric iron and even the electric sewing machine. They are now beginning to realise how useful refrigerators and deep freezers can be in the home, and wonder how they managed before the advent of electricity.
The road from Port Ellen to Ardbeg is in good repair, but it is becoming inadequate for the heavy traffic it has sometimes to take with the traffic to the distilleries, and requires widening. This will no doubt come along, but it still retains its rural atmosphere, which we would not like to see destroyed.
Built originally to join up the distilleries and the farms beyond, it took the place of the older roads, which were higher up. Traces of those old drove roads can still be seen and it is possible to walk over them from Kildalton to Ballygrant, the route the drovers used when they were taking their cattle to Port Askaig for shipment. Now to go to Port Askaig means about a thirty-mile journey via Port Ellen, Bowmore, Bridgend and Ballygrant to the pier at Port Askaig. The road the drovers took, over the hills, would not be suitable for modern motor transport. There must have been an old shore road too, however. Traces of it, now much overgrown and in places difficult even for carts to negotiate, can still be seen in the area.
The island is of interest to the geologist, with its limestone ridges interspersed with quartz, which is used at the gates of some of the old houses for decorative purposes. There are many quarries in the district, where the stone was taken for dykes and buildings, but apart from Kildalton House, the churches and the schools, most of the buildings are whitewashed. Limestone for whitewashing is not now obtained locally, but limestone chips for the roads are being used from a quarry at Ballygrant on the other side of the island. It makes a good road surface but has been used only since the 1950’s, as previous to that, granite chips were brought by puffer from Argyll.
There is much to interest the ornithologist on the island. In Ardenistle the chough, a very rare bird, has its nest, while golden eagles have their eyries in the hills of Kildalton “far from the madding crowd”. There are many woodcock, and they too are reported as nesting in sheltered parts of Kildalton, and in the wooded area at Ardenistle. There are numbers of great northern divers, too, another rare bird, and the usual vast numbers of sea gulls of all kinds, while many ducks inhabit the waters round our part of the shore. We have not many geese – they confine their activities mostly to the fiats at Gruinart – but the golden plover and the green plover can be seen on our fields, while the starling can be almost as big a nuisance as in some of our cities on the mainland. Numerous songbirds awaken us in the mornings with their lovely sounds, and recently we have had many ringed doves around our woods. Their call can be heard early in the morning, after the owls have finished their nightly work – the tawny owl and the barn owl are the most common. On the shore the ever-busy heron can be seen, and the otter is also a frequent visitor. The seals have already been mentioned, and in the bays where the fresh water enters the sea we have sea trout at certain seasons of the year – preferred by many to salmon.
The highest hill on the island, Beinn Bheigeir (1,609 ft.), lies above Ardtalla at the end of our road, and from here one can walk by a path to McArthur’s Head, where the lighthouse marks the southern entrance to the Sound of Islay. It is pretty rough going but well worth the trouble of making the journey. The climate in Kildalton is perhaps a little milder than some of the other parts of the island and, as elsewhere in the west, we are not troubled very much with snowstorms. Even in the great snow freeze-up of a few years ago, Islay escaped. Although we have our share of wind and rain, we cannot grumble unduly, as the rain keeps everything fresh and green and this summer we have had more than our share of sunny days.
The spring is a lovely time here. In February we have the snowdrops and crocus appearing, following the hazel catkins or Lamb’s Tails. The hazel grows on all our hills and the lovely yellow of the gorse later in the year is very colourful by our roadsides. They seem to thrive well in our climate. Trees grow very well too, where there is shelter from the wind, our greatest problem, and fuchsia makes a very good hedge in many places. The peaty soil seems to suit rhododendrons, but only where there is shelter from the wind. Around the rocky coast the crevices form a natural rock garden, and the ” sea pink ” can be seen on most headlands. Along the roadside the primroses flower for many weeks, and the wild hyacinths, and the bluebells can also be seen. The blackthorn also flowers and the marsh marigolds grow to a very large size particularly along the side of our burns. Dandelions, daisies and buttercups thrive too well for the gardener and farmer, but they are very colourful, and clover grows in many places. In the marshland the wild orchids are plentiful, and in some places flax also grows. This was possibly used by the earlier inhabitants, but nowadays no one bothers to pick any. The foxgloves hold up their stately heads, and cow parsley is very common along the roadsides, with meadowsweet more rare in places. Ferns are plentiful and so are wild iris (yellow flag) and the wild rose. Honeysuckle grows well and brambles can be seen along the hedges, while nettles grow too well for our farmers. The red and white campions are quite common, and ivy climbs over the rocks and dykes. The bell heather is plentiful, and the ordinary purple heather gives a wonderful colour to the hills in the early autumn.
Where the ground has not been cultivated for some time, the bracken takes over – and rushes in the marshy land. The latter are used to cover the potato pits during the winter. Potatoes, oats and turnips grow well on the island, and in the olden days potatoes and oats were the staple diet, the oats being ground into oatmeal for porridge and the making of bannocks or oatcakes. The farmer no longer uses his oats for this purpose, and the oatmeal is now purchased in packets from the local shops. The housewife still does quite a lot of baking, although the making of bread is no longer a “must ” for the farmer’s wife; but most homes have their own home-made scones and pancakes, and make their own jam or jellies in season, the favourites being rhubarb and ginger jam, and bramble jelly. Brambles are very plentiful, and in the early autumn the thrifty housewife can be seen out by the roadside picking brambles. Rowan trees grow well around the policies of Kildalton and along the roadside in this sheltered spot, and in certain places on the way to Proaig are holly trees, where one can always find red berries. Such is our part of the island – still very rural, but near enough the village of Port Ellen to make shopping fairly easy, and to enable our members to take part in any activities there, such as bowling, tennis and putting in the summer. For the boys there is football, played regularly in the local playing fields, built up by the efforts of the local people. There are various football teams throughout the island, including our own one, Laphroaig Football Club. By running dances each Saturday night in Port Ellen Hall, they contribute to charity, including a donation to the Old Folks Committee to enable them to take the old folks for an outing and a dinner at the Old New Year.
The local doctor and nurse live in Port Ellen and there is a new hospital at Bowmore ten miles away. Until 1935 there was no telephone on the island, communications being by telegram between the island and the mainland, but the telephone has put us all in closer touch with other parts of the island and the mainland. The first-class mails, which used to come by steamer, now come by air, so we have our mails at mid-day instead of in the evening, and the papers also come by air. These changes have perhaps made us all more conscious of the time factor, but there is still an air of peacefulness in Islay, and a feeling that time is not all-important. The people have still time to be kind, hospitable and to tell stories old and new, and to welcome people to their homes.
In our parish perhaps they do not go to church as often as they might, but they like to go there for weddings and for christenings, and they support any efforts in their own way. Such organisations as the Red Cross and the Lifeboat Institution are well supported, and they are enthusiastic members of our Rural Institute and of the Woman’s Guild. They do good work with their hands, particularly at knitting and baking. The men cut peat and work in their gardens, and many of them are handymen about the house, doing their own repairs and improving their homes.
There are very few Catholics on the island, so there is no resident priest, and we in Kildalton share our parish minister with Port Ellen village, where he now lives.
Life with us today may be different from twenty or thirty years ago, as we become more aware of modern developments, but it is a modern way of life in the company of the past, with no hustle or bustle to distract us. The tang of the sea is always with us and so is the peace of the countryside. We would not wish to change it.