At last, a return to Islay …
January 8, 2013 § 1 Comment
One of my oldest pals is Allan Wright, the landscape photographer, who has a well-established reputation throughout Scotland and further afield. We both attended St Andrews University in the 1970s when a pint of beer in the Union bar was 17p, a plate of haddock and chips 21p and it was possible to live off £10 a week: £5 for Monday to Friday and £5 for the weekend. I rented a room in the middle house of a peculiar three-house terrace on the hill at Mount Melville for £20 a month. My son Ruaridh’s room in his flat at Dundee costs £285 just now! While I was at St A’s I had started to build my Manx Triton motorbike (Manx Norton featherbed frame and a 750cc Morgo-converted Triumph Bonneville engine) and actually had it there during my final year. I was able to store it in the internal coal cellar at the rear of the house which shared a wall nextdoor to the retired minister of the Church of Scotland who played his organ loudly on Sunday mornings accompanied by his less than tuneful singing wife. The racket was not welcome to students sleeping off the night before and I decided one day to fight fire with fire. I fired up the Triton inside the cellar.
He stopped playing and didn’t speak to me for a week but we got to lie in on Sundays after that. Allan and I both went on to work in the oil business after graduation and we kept up when possible. He was one of the photographers who came with me on the trip on the ketch Alystra around the distilleries of the Hebrides in 1984 which formed the basis of my first book, Scotch and Water. I like to think that perhaps the Classic Malts Cruise which was started up in the 90s by UDV was inspired by our nautical sojourn from Islay to Skye back then, but they have never admitted it. I was however invited in 2001 to join the cruise as a guest of Diageo on board the brigantine Jean De La Lune for the Islay to Skye leg and found myself retracing part of the route of 1984 but in considerably more style and comfort. Out of that trip came my updated history of the island distilleries, The Island Whisky Trail, which is still selling well 10 years on and is shortly to be available as an Ebook.
Diageo are no longer directly involved in the cruise (which explains why it is no longer ‘Classic’) but the fact remains that muggins came up with the idea first.
Islay has remained a feature in my life since the Alystra cruise and I have returned as often as I can, often on professional business (writing, book launches, magazine articles) and sometime just for fun. In April last year Allan and I decided it was time to hook up again and head over there on our bikes. For fun. The last time I had been over on a bike was when I borrowed my father’s DL650 Suzuki V-Strom back in late-May 2004 when I was one of the first guests to stay at Ronnie and Mhairi Brown’s new guesthouse, The Monachs, which they had just opened. The Triton had long gone by then and would never have survived a trip like that. The Suzuki handled the whole thing admirably … comfy, fast and frugal, returning 70mpg at all times with a 300-plus mile tank range to boot.
Allan and I had done similar jaunts before but only on day trips. He used to have a 750 Triumph Bonneville and we would trundle through Galloway on a summer’s day listening to the exhaust beats resonating through the countryside along the way. His Bonneville eventually went the same way as my Triton and he now rats around on a Cagiva Elefant 500 which is a fine machine on which to tackle the Galloway backroads and forest trails. A long period of abstinence followed after I sold the Triton in 1991 (surreptitiously interrupted by a Moto Guzzi Le Mans III – my second – and a Honda Africa Twin, about which my then wife kent nowt) but after my divorce in 2007 I eventually sourced a 1997 Honda VFR750 (after a three-year fling with a Moto Guzzi Norge 1200), arguably the finest all-round bike ever built and one that I could never have afforded new when it cost £8500. I picked up mine with 33000 miles on the clock and a full service history for £2000 from those delightful people at Cupar Motorcycles. With an engine like a Swiss chronometer, it had reliability built in from the start.
We decided to island-hop over in early June taking the early morning CalMac ferry to Brodick from Ardrossan, then going round the top of Arran to Lochranza and hopping over to the east side of Kintyre at Cloanaig. From there we would cross over Kintyre to West Loch Tarbert and get the Kennacraig ferry to Islay for a four-night stay at the excellent Port Mor campsite at Port Charlotte. The Honda had come with a Givi wingrack so I invested in a topbox and panniers, bought a Vango tent and was all set. At 4am on Friday, 8th June, I reversed the bike out of garage in Moffat, loaded the panniers, and headed off up the M74. Alan was doing the same thing over in Castle Douglas and we agreed our ETA at the ferry terminal. I needed fuel on the way so peeled off at Happendon Services, which were deserted, and filled her up. I had a coffee and continued up towards Lesmahagow when I noticed the power dropping off after an overtake. The engine began to die but I got her off at the next junction and parked her on the sliproad. I thumbed the starter button but the lady was not for turning over. Bugger. There was only one thing for it. I called the AA. Then I called Allan who had stopped for a coffee south of Ayr. With the glum news received he decided not to go on and headed back home. I said I’d arrange the refunds via CalMac.
So that was our trip to Islay in 2012. We never got there. And the problem with the bike? There wasn’t one. I had filled it with diesel. Cupar fixed it and Gareth the mechanic said I shouldn’t be embarrassed as he had done the same thing … twice! ‘You always do it twice. Think you can’t but generally you do.’ Bollocks, I thought. Only a dickhead would end up doing it twice!
On Saturday 25th August, I did exactly the same thing again.