Slàinte Mhath

Port Ellen Islay

As our plane prepared to land over the sodden green fields surrounding the Glasgow airport, I distinctly sensed how natural it seemed to be arriving there. After my visit to Eagle Island, I knew then that Islay would be my next island visit. My sixteen-year-old daughter, Jessica, and I had spent the winter planning an excursion to various points in Scotland where our ancestors had descended. Catherine’s mother, my great-great-grandmother Euphemia, immigrated from the small Scottish Isle of Islay and so, it was our plan to include a trip there as part of a pilgrimage tour of the Highlands. I’d rented a small car with a manual shift and it was Jessica’s job to remind me to stay on the left-hand side of the road throughout the course of our three-week tour.

 We first headed to the Central Highlands, beating our way out of Glasgow as quickly as we could and scaring the life out of those on the road who didn’t understand that it was difficult to remember to stay on the left-hand side after deboarding from an overnight Atlantic crossing without any sleep for two days. Left side, mom. Left side!

Our goal that first day was Kinloch Rannoch. And, beyond that, Aulich, what we now know to be the farm where our Stewart ancestors heralded before coming across to Canada in the early 1800s. Initially, we assumed Aulich was a village until Margaret Brown (with whom I corresponded for many years afterward), a dear resident back at Kinloch, set us straight on the fact that we were actually looking for a large stone farmhouse against a backdrop of rounded hills and a herd of sheep. Meanwhile, even though it was only 3:00 in the afternoon, Jessica’s internal clock agued with that fact, so while Jessica dozed in the passenger seat beside me, I turned in at the Aulich farm gate.

The farm was previously part of Craigenour Estate. The manager, a towering and very amiable Scot with bristling red hair, was kind enough to take us up into the hills in his Range Rover to show us where the croft settlements had been located over time. Habitations of farm workers dating back to the 17th century, then reduced to mere circles of stones on the ground, traces of those lives that once existed there.

After our visit to Aulich, we slowly made our way over to the west coast, stopping to visit sites like Stirling Castle on the way. As we pulled up to the Ardrossan ferry terminal early one cold, bleak, rainy, windy morning, grey waves crashing up onto the shore, it didn’t seem like an especially auspicious beginning to our two-hour journey across to the most southerly of the Western Hebrides Islands. I’d spent the previous months getting to know Islay by leafing through travel brochures, learning that this island was significantly larger than Eagle but small all the same, spanning a length of approximately twenty-five miles. In spite of that information, I was still not prepared for the feeling I experienced as our ferry approached Port Ellen, looming ahead of us. It seemed to float before us, unmoored. Or perhaps it was me that was feeling a little unmoored out there in the middle of the water. I was trying to decide if I felt any connection to the place.

I soon learned that Islay literally leaked scotch whiskey as it did the peaty water that gave Islay scotch its distinctive taste and colour. I also learned that “tea” easily transitioned into wee drams on many afternoons. Of course, we had to take the obligatory distillery tour—for educational purposes, mind—and I still have the souvenir scotch glasses to prove it! Slàinte mhath or phonetically, Slange Var, pronounced slan-ge-var, a traditional Scottish toast to good health is one bit of the Gaelic language that I brought back with me as well.

The parish of Kilchoman is located on the west side of the island. Ruins of the church by the same name, built in 1827, stand on the same site as an earlier medieval church and Christian chapel prior to that.

Image courtesy of Islay Info.

I understood from genealogical research that Euphemia had been born and spent her early years there. I found no thick layers of limestone rock as I had on Eagle Island but miles of deep luxuriant sand that the Celtic ponies navigated effortlessly with their large sturdy hooves as large around as pie plates.

I stood near the church and the Celtic cross, dating back to the 1300s, looking out over Machir Bay and the Atlantic Ocean beyond, with the noise of inhabitants’ voices swept away long ago with the clearances. What will did it take for Phema to leave her native Gaelic language behind and to sail across in hope of a better life in Canada? How many toasts of good wishes were said before they left?

Islay was the last leg of our journey that summer. It would take little to persuade me to return there again. But in the meantime, I was on my way back to Canada with information packed from our trip alongside the souvenir glasses, which became an integral part of The Will.

Banner image by Mark Spurgeon on Unsplash.

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