The Rhinns of Islay is the western peninsula that comprises around a third of the total land area of the island. The Gaelic version is ‘Rinns’, ‘Rhinns’ being an English spelling invented by romantic Victorian cartographers who thought that the extra letter looked more authentic.
It is fascinating to see how dramatically the farming regimes have changed over the years and how this reflects the development of whisky distilling. Islay saw a huge rise in population in the 18th century driven by the availability of the potato and basic health care. The census of 1831 put the population at over 15,000, but changes in the political landscape and then the potato famines saw a steady decline, which continues to this day. Anyone walking the moors is likely to come across the rather sad remains of runrig surrounding villages that were abandoned during the Highland Clearances.
120 Barnacle geese were captured on Nonday morning on the RSPB nature reserve up at Loch Gruinart using a cannon net. The geese feed and roost in huge flocks and it is possible, but by no means easy, to lure them within range of the net by baiting the ground with corn.
Once caught, various measurements are taken, and three rings placed on the legs. One is a red 'locality ring' which can easily be seen with binoculars and shows that the bird was caught in a particular location (it might be a red ring for Gruinart, but a blue ring for Bowmore for example). There is also a white 'Darvic Ring' which can be read, with luck and skill, while using a telescope, and then there is the standard metal British Trust for Ornithology ring which can only be read by recapturing the bird, or finding it dead. So each bird captured is eventually released adorned with a fair amount of leg ornament.
The arrival of the huge flocks of wild geese is a real seasonal marker on Islay. Winter is approaching. Our picture was taken yesterday and shows Barnacle geese, which have spent the summer breeding in Greenland. These are the birds whose tiny goslings can be seen on TV wildlife programmes leaping off cliffs and bouncing impossibly on the rocks below before running the gauntlet of Arctic foxes.
The natural world serves up some extraordinary bounty - particularly so perhaps at this time of year as the harvests are gathered in. One of the less predictable sights is when literally hundreds of millions of young herrings, called "shielachan" in the Gaelic, gather in enormous shoals to feed on the rich plankton blooms that develop in the warmer waters of Loch Indaal. Following them are huge shoals of mackerel that gorge thenselves on the little fish. The mackerel are hunted in turn by predators such as tope (a kind of shark), seals and dolphins. We had a pod of bottle nosed dolphins in the loch last week that were photographed by Kevin Wiggins. They can be seen on the Islay Natural History Trust blog.
The villagers of Port Charlotte like to catch and eat the mackerel too. We enjoyed four for lunch yesterday, sold to us at our door by a proud young fisherman. They are best eaten grilled with plenty of salt and lemon and fresh brown bread. The shielachan have been in such numbers this year that the water has been literally thick with them at times, and they are driven up the beaches and onto the rocks by the voracious mackerel which themselves become so excited by the chase that they sometimes launch themselves up the beaches and become stranded on the sand.
The young shielachan are a delicacy too. Eaten whole as whitebait, one scoop of the net provides far more than a family can eat at a single sitting.
The recipe for shielachan was provided by Bob Paget, father in-law of Duncan McGillivray who is distillery manager at Bruichladdich. Bob recommends that we dry them and roll them in flour before deep frying them in oil for about five minutes, until they just start to turn crispy. Serve them with salt and parsley and lemon or garlic. Perfect with a dram of Port Charlotte Scottish Barley, they were a lovely starter last night, just before enjoying a shoulder of roast Islay lamb.
Mark French took a calculated risk back in March this year, when a prolonged spell of dry weather provided a window of opportunity to sow his crop of malting barley for Bruichladdich early. He decided that the potential benefits from an early sowing outweighed the risks of heavy damage from migratory Barnacle geese, or a late frost nipping the germinating grain. The crop did get a good early start, and was coming on, albeit slowly, throughout the late, cold, wet spring. He is now seeing his early gamble paying off in spectacular fashion because his harvest in almost complete in August, which is great news.
Professor Steven Mithen of Reading University has been leading teams of archaeologists to the Southern Hebrides in general, and Islay in particular, for many years. Last year we were able to host his group at The Academy in Bruichladdich, and while they were unfortunately unable to stay with us again this year, they were able to take a few hours off from digging to tour the distillery with our general manager, Duncan McGillivray.
Mark French of Rockside Farm is pictured sowing a variety of malting barley called ‘Concerto’ in the big ‘Minister's Field yesterday under a mackerel sky. Mark has chosen to sow early this year, taking advantage of the extended period of dry weather – but that sky tells of a change to come.
Andrew Jefford's book 'Peat Smoke and Spirit' is the most comprehensive account of Islay and its whiskies to appear to date. Published back in 2004 following two years of island-based, almost forensic enquiry, it successfully weds elegant prose and meticulous research to the enquiring mind of the investigative journalist.
This picture shows men unloading sacks of barley destined for Loch Indaal Distillery from a small 'flitboat' on to horse drawn carts just off Port Charlotte beach. The photo was probably taken very early in the twentieth century. Barley was imported for malting at the Islay whisky distilleries from the mainland in flat bottomed coal fired steam ships called 'puffers', one of which can be seen standing off.
The manual labour involved in moving the barley must have been considerable.