“Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.” Anita Desal
I looked down from my window seat in the little plaid-painted commuter plane to view the green and purple island below. There I surveyed the wee Scottish island as if it were the tourist map laid out on my kitchen table back home in Texas. It really did resemble a witch carrying a bag of coal on her back!
Twice before I’d come to Islay on the ferry from the Argyll coast of western Scotland. I came first in 1987 on a church mission trip, and six years later, I brought my daughter. My husband Jerry, who is adamantly opposed to sailing, accompanied me on this his first visit to Islay.
For twelve years Jerry had heard me speak about the violet heather that covers Islay’s moors in October, much like the bluebonnets that cover Texas in April. He was not disappointed. The breeze was cool and scented with peat that was being hand-harvested in the bogs along the roadside as we rode with our friends, James and Mary, to their white stucco cottage in Port Ellen.
Jerry and I had the bedroom on the second floor with a casement window that overlooked the harbor, just beyond their street. The outside walls of their home, more than a century old, were a foot thick. Just standing in front of the window made me feel as if I were looking out from a castle tower. I imagined the bay was a large mote keeping out any and all unwanted intruders.
There was so much I wanted to share with Jerry, and new discoveries I hoped we could experience together. Two days would not be enough time, but I reminded myself that hurrying would taint my reality of Islay.
Jerry and I slept late the next day. Once awake, however, I remembered my urgency to explore. I put on jeans and my Islay sweater. The “jumper” with its black sheep design had been hand-knitted for me from Islay wool. It was a glorious day for bike riding, but there wasn’t time. Instead, Mary chauffeured us around the island.
From the car I pointed out to Jerry the woolen mill, the whiskey distilleries and the WWI monument to the American sailors who drowned off the coast of Islay. Our first destination was the Kildalton Cross, Islay’s most famous treasure. Hewn from a singe slab of local, gray-green stone, the ninth century, eight-foot Celtic cross stands unbroken and well-preserved enough for us to recognize the Bible heroes carved on its east and west faces. Nearby in the ruins of a medieval church, a grave slab, carved with a depiction of a man in armor, spawned our speculation about what the twelfth-century patron, the Lord of the Isle, might have looked like. “All of the MacDonalds in the world come from Islay,” Mary bragged. Indeed, the church had stone arches!
We stopped at Claggain Bay, where the small, smooth beach stones were multicolored and resembled a giant’s marble game laid out in the circular cove. Jerry spotted gray seals basking in the sun atop some rocks in the bay. We passed a field with two prehistoric standing stones, and it was simple enough to climb over the stone fence to get a closer look. Mary took our picture with the Bronze Age monolith, and then showed me how to gather heather by its roots.
In the town of Bowmore, we visited the eighteenth-century, Church of Scotland “Round Church.” Just around the corner is the little Baptist Church where I worked the first time I came to Islay. I was so anxious to revisit my favorite shops that our anticipated lunch of fish and chips was postponed until I could browse at Roy’s emporium, The Celtic House. Next-door was the bakery where I always buy Empire biscuits. We ate the jelly-filled, cut out cookies as an appetizer.
Mary knows and spoke to everyone. One woman we meet on the street exclaimed, “You’re wearing my jumper. It must have been ten years ago, at least, that I knitted it. I’ve had hand surgery and can’t knit anymore.” I wanted to tell her how much pleasure and how many wonderful memories her sweater had given me, but I am overwhelmed by the serendipity of our meeting. Instead, I told her that I had returned with my husband, and hoped that that was evidence enough of my devotion to Islay.
The next day, I insisted that we take the five-minute ferry ride to Jura, Islay’s neighbor island to the north. Mary and James’ daughter, Ruth, was the county nurse and the only medical personnel on Jura at the time. The cottage where she lived was separated from the beach by her rose garden, which was in full bloom.
We went inside for a cup of tea and scones. Hours later I checked the time only to realize that we had just missed the last ferry returning to Islay. Ruth raced us to the pier in her little blue Audi, which doubled as her mobile clinic and traveling office. She honked sharply three times at the departing barge. The captain recognized her car, and teasingly admonished her from the ferry’s loudspeaker. “Will the nurse from Jura kindly set her watch with the rest of us?” The all-but-empty boat turned back to rescue us.
Too soon it was time for us to go. Jerry said he didn’t think he could actually live in a place where the sheep out-number the people, “but it was a nice place to visit.” I’ll be back, someday, but until then, I’ll have my heather bouquet to remind me of my island home in Scotland.