Many moons ago the Scotland rugby giant that is Ian “Mighty Mouse” McLauchlan married a lass from Islay and they still own a cottage in Bowmore. He tells a good story about the island when attempting to get his roof repaired. The Islay builder turned up, quoted for the task in hand and the pair shook hands on a price.
McLauchlan went back to the mainland and upon his return to the island six months later the work had yet to start. He called to remonstrate with the roofer, who replied:
“I never knew it was a rush job!”
The funny thing about that story is that it gives a wholly misleading impression of our island community of approximately 3,500 souls (the numbers almost double in the summer months). Instead of being a sleepy little backwater where anything inside six months is a “rush job” it is a thriving hive of activity where many folk juggle two or three jobs, (shades of Local Hero for those that know the film). One of these jobs might be tending the family croft, but another is likely to be in IT, or graphic design, or coordinating exports for a £30 million manufacturing company that sends 90% of its luxury goods overseas.
Evidence of a vibrant economy is everywhere. There is a slew of building works going on across the island, including the extraordinary expansion of Bruichladdich, a brand new distillery at Ardnahoe which is scheduled to come on line next year, a 47 bed hotel at The Machrie and the planned re-opening of Port Ellen distillery (it was closed in 1983). There is at least the possibility of another brand new start up distillery being built at Gartbreck, on the eastern shore of Loch Indaal, which will be Islay’s tenth if it happens…
The vast majority of those empty cottages that used to litter the landscape were rebuilt long ago while the best new building plots sell for six figure sums. And while we are on the subject of roofers, my pal Andy was quoted double my mainland price to re-tile a similar sized roof in Port Ellen. Busy? You are more likely to find a bottle of Bruichladdich at the end of the rainbow than a builder who can accommodate you within the next twelve months.
This has been some sea change in Islay’s fortunes – because a few decades ago things were very different. Summer tourists came, I was among them, but in nothing like the numbers that now flock to Islay like the geese. Houses lay empty for want of buyers, as did Bruichladdich distillery from 1994-2001. The place was on its uppers; one part indolence to two parts indifference, all sprinkled with an unhealthy dose of impotence, as if nothing could ever change.
Obviously the general boom in single malt whisky has played its part in this renaissance. In 2016 Scottish exports of single malt topped £1 billion for the first time ever, accounting for an eye popping 26% of of all Scotland’s whisky exports. People now appreciate the good stuff and Islay distills the best of the best.
The benefit from this surge of interest in single malt can be felt across the island, not least on the Rhinns. Bruichladdich is super-proud to be the largest independent employer on the entire island. I came across a staff photograph from 1994 on the Bruichladdich website just before the place was closed showing just ten people. Now with the bottling hall, whisky, The Botanist gin, tours, drivers, warehouses, an office and a shop the payroll boasts almost ten times that number, more if you include the Glasgow office. Far more if you include the independent farmers, builders, electricians, contractors, truckers, ferrymen etc. etc. all of whom are involved in driving the distillery forward. This extraordinary enterprise is supported by a community of real people doing valuable prestigious jobs. They are successfully competing in a global market for luxury goods. From Islay.
So, is this “a sleepy little backwater”? I don’t think so… Carl Reavey of this very parish (now Head of Communications at Bruichladdich) tells another Islay story. He came to the island twenty three years ago after a career in the music business that took him to Los Angeles – and when he arrived he complained that he couldn’t keep up with the pace of life on Islay.
The funny thing about that story is – he wasn’t joking…