Something about taking the night ferry through the Scottish Hebrides after a day of whisky tasting by the sea had me thinking, and hearing an edgy alto in a familiar voice echo through my head. It was a voice that could channel wonder, punctuate tragedy and break down countless barriers. It was a voice that found its strength when charging into the world’s rarest enigmas. More than anything, it was a voice searching for what lay beyond the roving sunset.
And it was a voice recently departed. Had it urged me out into shadowy, rock-lined waters? Did it cause me to go looking for a connection between these bare, windy islands and the history of Celtic wanderers who built my community’s foundation?
Earlier in the week, I’d boarded a ship as dawn broke through silver mist along the dock at Kennacraig. A gale blasted those empty hills where the Irish Sea meets the North Atlantic, but thankfully, my vessel had a coffeehouse and full bar of Scotch from the rolling countryside. Getting my blood warm, I huddled down and forced myself out on deck. I wanted to watch the stark terrain, to breathe the ice-filled bottom of the fog. I knew these were the shores of Clan MacAlister, who were immortalized in a Victorian painting of the devastating Highland clearances. They were the waters that Saint Columba sailed in the sixth century on his way to meet the Celts of Kintyre. Through the drifting spray, I saw the shape of Gigha, named by Norsemen who landed their dragon-headed boats there in search of new islands.
Only a few people wanted to stay on the deck.
The ship cut south toward the Isle of Islay, home to some of the best whisky distilleries in the world. Pearly wakes broke off the stern and cascaded over the hard, sapphire of the sea. Clouds drifted above, but when the sun moved through them, it swung blinding light down the channel, shaking and shimmering against each rough crest of foam. Beyond the bow, I caught a scattershot of pale-painted cottages standing lost along the rough shoreline. I watched the roofs slowly pass, anchored to the sweeping green meadows and wine-tinged mounds of splashing heather. Our ship had to traverse some of the most dangerous waves west of Scotland, but I’d waited to sail the route for a while because it led to a true understanding of Scotch, that fiery fusion of barley and water that swells with enough tumult to make your eyes bleed.
In a way, my trip was a bit of a do-over. I’d been to a revered whisky distillery before, but there was something off about that experience. In that instance, I’d gone to the Talisker Distillery, the oldest distillery on the Isle of Skye. The distillery is a fine culture-bearer for the Scots, but unfortunately – and this isn’t Talisker’s fault – national leaders built a bridge from the mainland to Skye in 1995. That simple act changed life on the island forever, eventually causing it to be overrun with visitors. Before the bridge, anyone who wanted to visit Skye had to cross Loch Carron and the Inner Sound on a ferry. This was just one too many steps for arrivals who demanded every aspect of their trips be served on golden trays of convenience. The sea was a cold, natural gatekeeper.
On this next trip, I was determined to find the soul of Scotch on a more remote island. Equally important, I wanted to drink alongside sojourners who were truly interested in the whisky’s powerful, peat-smoldered tradition. When I first looked off the ship’s bow at the white walls of Lagavulin that rise over the tide – seeing wind hit the grass on its dark, weather-beaten rocks – I knew I’d made the right choice.
I explored Islay with a small group of intrepid Scotch fans from around the globe. We learned why the islanders appreciate the ancient art of coopering. We saw how each distillery master puts heat below colossal copper stills. We watched the way Scottish “mash-men” rake floors of malted barley. We whiffed the smoky chunks of peat that burned deep in the mouths of kilns. We even drank cups of Laphroaig’s malty sugar water as it was in the middle of the fermenting process. Someone at Bowmore Distillery talked me into downing a dram of 18-year-old whisky straight from the barrel, which punched the imagination out of my skull and left it splattered somewhere against the sherry casks.
I hit Islay with the kind of full-throttle immersion I’d embraced ever since discovering my favorite travel writer and documentarian, Anthony Bourdain. When he shot his series “Raw Craft With Anthony Bourdain” at the Balvenie Distillery in Scotland’s Dufftown, he’d asked the fourth-generation still-men, “Is whisky science or magic?” They all replied that it was an elusive art chock full of mystery. At Islay, I was able to dive headlong into that cryptic, Celtic art.
For Highland descendants in the Gold Country, especially those who can’t travel, imported whisky is a warm doorway back to their Scottish heritage. Members of the Mother Lode Scots can often be seen at the Imperial Hotel bar enjoying golden glasses of Macallan, Glenlivet and even Cutty Sark from Glasglow. On Jan. 12, the Mother Lode Scots hoist drinks to the homeland again at the annual Robert Burns Supper. Everyone is invited to this elegant evening at the Grand Oak Ballroom at the Jackson Rancheria Casino. It includes haggis, Scotch broth soup and a choice of prime rib or chicken Bonnie Prince Charlie. And, of course, the evening is rounded-out with sticky toffee pudding and a singing of Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne.”
The Burns Supper is about feeling connected to Scotland’s legacy, but the legacy I thought about when I left Islay was Bourdain’s. His book “The Nasty Bits” is one of the best works of travel literature I’ve ever read. His book “Medium Raw” is an unforgettable dive into the minds of kitchen misfits and culinary creators. His documentary film on chef Jeremiah Tower, “The Last Magnificent,” is a spellbinding tour de force, both in its soul-shaking themes and its mesmerizing cinematography. The day after Bourdain died, his television crew released a photograph of him sitting on the deck of a ship at night, writing in his notebook as the flame-blue lights of Hong Kong rose above. They titled the picture, “The Star Ferry to Kowloon.”
As I sat on the night ferry through the Hebrides, all I could think about is how much Bourdain inspired people to really live in this world, and that I hoped he’d found whatever it is he was looking for out in that big blue world.
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