The Telegraph
 
 
ARCHIVES
Since 1st March, 1999
 
THE TELEGRAPH
 
 
Email This Page
SILLY SEASON ON ISLAY
- Where prime ministers holidayed in the past

August is always seen as the silly season in British politics. Parliament is in the middle of the long summer recess and newspapers fill column inches with grainy photographs of the prime minister and his cabinet in a variety of European holiday destinations. Meanwhile huge numbers of holiday-makers have wasted their time at Heathrow airport waiting for flights cancelled after the British Airways caterers came out on strike in support of colleagues sacked after a company streamlining initiative.

The furore over the tragic shooting of an unarmed Brazilian carpenter on the London tube, in the heat of the terrorist-attack fever, continues unabated. The facts need to be laid out clearly if the reputation of the police force here is not to suffer at home and abroad. So far, there seems to be a veil of confusion over the whole incident, giving scope for endless media speculation and few conclusions.

The former foreign secretary, Robin Cook, has died this month, halfway up a Scottish Hill, at the age of 68. He was a highly intelligent and committed politician, whom the Labour Party should also miss, in spite of his fall from grace as a gainsayer against the Iraq War. His misfortune, and possibly ours, was that he was ever made foreign secretary; he was a square peg in a round hole, however much his belief in ethical foreign policy may have gelled with New Labour ideals. In-dians will perhaps remember his crass and ill-judged remarks over the future of Kashmir with the same shudder as we do, but they were not the measure of the man, neither were his sadly non-telegenic looks. He did once say himself that a man who most resembled a garden gnome could never hope to lead a political party.

Prime ministers in the past have holidayed on the island of Islay, off the west coast of Scotland, where I am currently staying. Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home, Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher all stayed here with my family. Tony Blair too, when still only the heir-in-waiting during John Smith's brief leadership of the Labour Party. The press was transfixed by the idea of Mrs Thatcher, in her London heels, tramping about Scottish grouse-moors, and I am sure it was more to the taste of her husband, Dennis, given the excellent if neglected golf links and unlimited supplies of local malt whisky. It was still possible for well-known politicians to take relatively peaceful holidays within the British Isles without the weight of paparazzi lenses bearing down upon them. Now they are actually forced to depart to their borrowed foreign villas where carefully staged press briefings and photography sessions take place, prior to their disappearance behind high walls and security staff, in an attempt to preempt the continued interest of papers looking for a story about Cherie Blair's bathing suit.

The Western Isles of Scotland must be one of the more romantic places in the world, on the days at least when one is beset by neither appalling weather nor the dreaded Scottish midge which can drive people off a hill or beach faster than any plague. Much research time has been spent on the midge problem; we are told up here that on one loch or lake, there are three million beastly little biting things per square metre. On a still day, most of them seem to be attached to any uncovered parts of your anatomy as you try to fish for trout, watch for birds or deer or loiter outside the local post-office and village shop.

The Bridgend post-office is the centre of life in Islay. Along with the general store in Sisters Bazaar in Mussoorie, it can compete to be the stockist of the most diverse range of goods in the world ' from waterproofs and rubber boots to washing powder and whisky; from binoculars and hairdryers to bread and cooked chicken. Jimmy's is also the place where everyone inevitably meets everyone else and new holiday visitors must be amazed by the cocktail party atmosphere, not to mention the increasing weight of huge luxury four-wheel drive cars outside this small store in a tiny hamlet in the middle of nowhere.

Islay has changed dramatically in the last two generations. Even when I was a child all our milk, cream and butter came from the home farm and we more or less lived off the land. Shooting, fishing, sheep and cattle-farming provided our meat. Islanders took enormous pride in their vegetable gardens, in the eggs from chickens scratching round the houses ornamented by the glorious fuchsias that grow like weeds. Brightly coloured dahlias cheering dreary days and rudely cheerful gladioli spears braved the sea air to win prizes, along with enormous onions, delectable scones and pastries and faintly bizarre flower arrangements, at the yearly Islay Show.

The Show continues, much enjoyed by children who continue to spend their pocket money on the alarmingly psychedelic sweets in this or that stall and return home sticky and sickly from too much candy floss and an excess of greasy venison burgers after show day. Now there are fewer cattle to show; there is no competition for dairy cattle because there is only one dairy left on the island. Vegetable and flower gardens still thrive, but the cabbage is more likely to come from the co-op than the bottom of the garden, and cream and butter arrive at the post office in lorries from Scottish Dairies Inc.

To the rest of the world, India included, Islay is a whisky island. The mellifluous names of the peaty single malt from Islay's seven distilleries are known across the globe. Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Bowmore, Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich; the names slip off the tongue as their oily, smoky products slip down the throat. Whisky is big business and there is even a new independent 'boutique' distillery, Kilchoman, as an addition to the well-known names. Unfortunately, distilleries have never been large employers and these days they are even less so.

The Western Isles have always suffered for their beauty as disregarded offshoots of mainland Scotland, owned by absentee landlords and populated by increasingly disaffected smallholders. In spite of projects and plans, they continue to wane today. Islay's value, from duty on its whisky, to the UK treasury is of the order of a quarter of a billion pounds sterling per year, but there is small return on that to the island infrastructure and people. As agriculture increasingly fades, fishing grounds grow poorer from over-fishing. Leisure and tourism are the greatest potential money-spinners; there is little to keep the young here for not much more than the short summer holiday season. It is hard for those who remain here throughout the year. We, who come with summer or good winter sport, cherrypick the best and do not suffer the winters, which, even in an area touched by the warmth of the Gulfstream, can be bleak and grey. The stunning, chilly beauty of the island in winter, with enormous flocks of itinerant greylag and barnacle geese, is less appreciated by the remaining farmers whose fields the birds destroy. The islands suffer all the batterings of sea and gale, unknown to mainland dwellers.

Islay must once have done those prime ministers good ' peaceful balm perhaps for their bursting minds. Politicians these days have little time or allowance to enjoy the natural peace of such a place. Perhaps too there would be demonstrations against loss of transport to and from the mainland and against the successive policies that have so reduced the possibilities for employment on islands such as these, although the natural and generous disinterest of the islanders makes that an unlikely scenario. Once again they are left on the periphery of mainland development with their ruined castles and cottages, their ancient sites and rippling sand dunes populated only by rabbits and birds, their remoteness and beauty unimpaired for new generations of visitors and, perhaps, as people increasingly reject the speed of British urban existence, for a growing population of searchers for the solitude and the inspiring beauty of these out-of-the-way places.

Top
Email This Page