Notes from the Whisky Island / Seeing through the Eyes of Others
I always believed that strangers to the native place are lucky to see through different eyes. Seeing things that locals miss due to their close attachment. However, those visitors will never notice what locals see naturally.
22 February, 2019
At first, I was observing the island of Islay in Scotland very carefully. I was feeling unsure, especially about the attitude of the locals. Coming from Lithuania, a post-Soviet environment, I was used to looking at everything with suspicion. Although my country became independent when I was just 4 years old, hostility towards the outside world is still visible, even today. I’m definitely more relaxed and open to locals now. Not surprised anymore when they greet me in the street with “How are you?” and walk past without hearing my response. I’m actually more surprised now when I don’t get a response to my “Hi!” in the shop when I return to my native country.
In the beginning, for some unknown reason, I had strong feelings of alienation towards this beautiful island. I was restlessly comparing and criticizing the new environment. My world was divided into two. There was my place and there was the other place. It was only later that I realized these feelings were the result of a deep attachment to my native country. I was trying to enter a new culture while being deeply immersed in my own. Actually, this existence ‘between two cultures’ hasn’t disappeared, even after 10 years living here. To be honest with you, I think it’s getting worse. However, I was quick to notice that the more energy I wasted, trying to bring my own culture to the West Coast of Scotland, the harder it was to accept and to adapt to a new one. So, I just had to let it go.
In or out?
I can’t exactly remember the moment when I realized that I was either in (this island) or out. I was either in acceptance of new rules of the game, or I was packing up my stuff and leaving. Once I changed my attitude, I found myself in the core of Scottish culture. To be more precise, I found myself in a whisky distillery. And here (trust me!) fits everything: Scottish history, myths, people, jokes, sorrows, heated discussions, flavours, smells, views … well, all of Scotland.
At my work, I meet people from all around the world. Almost all of them fall in love with the island from first sight, or dram? “I wish I could move here”, I hear them dream out loud. And I understand why. Eight working distilleries (with three more on the go) is a good enough reason on its own to live here. Also, there is the inspiring scenery, the endless number of picturesque beaches, impressive historical sites, peace and quiet. You’ll also find small communities, each one located close to the other. However, people forget that living on a small island can be really challenging. Even in the 21st century.
What I find most difficult about living here, is ‘cabin fever’. It’s a feeling of being stuck in the middle of an ocean without the possibility of escape. In order to leave the island, you must either take a boat or a plane. These have set times and depend on the weather. The latter, as everyone knows, is really unpredictable here in Scotland. And what do you do then? You can’t go to a random coffee house if you want some privacy or a moment to yourself. Random simply doesn’t exist in a small place. You simply can’t sign up to a dancing class, as there are limited activities in which to participate. It is all well and good if you are outdoorsy kind of guy. But it’s not so great if you are a culture, music and art loving person. Even for outdoor activities you need reasonable weather. I’m not talking about good or even less than good weather. As long as the rain is not threatening to wash you away into the wild Atlantic Ocean, and the wind not blowing you to the Land of Oz, you can still walk the hills and run with the dog on the beach. Everyone in Scotland knows that there is no bad weather, just bad clothing. However, I really don’t agree with them on this matter. To this day, the wind is my biggest irritation whilst living on the island.
Always on ‘island time’
So, what is it what keeps me here then? I won’t lie; whisky plays an important part here. Working in a whisky distillery every day, talking, learning, smelling and tasting whisky is incredible. But also, it is the magic of the island. Did you know that there is no time here? Yes! For a long time, people didn’t wear watches. Why do you need them? Sit down and relax. It’s ‘island time’ now.
This place definitely has its own pace of life. It’s easy to forget the time when you go to one of the many stunning beaches. Sitting on the beach known as the ‘Singing Sands’, listening to the sound of the wind gently stroking the white Atlantic shore is soothing. I also love my rare walks to the fairy woods. There is a small garden, with small benches and small street lights… The people who build all of this also believe in fairies. They play the violin to the seals that come to the beach every day. These woods are filled with magic and mystery and (I swear!) you definitely can feel some supernatural energy murmuring through the leaves of old trees.
Ten years ago, I was a complete stranger to this place. I was looking at this island through the eyes of others. So I was able to see what locals would normally pass without paying too much attention. Interestingly, without me noticing it, things that were fascinating to me before, started to look quite casual and normal: sitting in the Lagavulin whisky warehouse and trying one of their oldest whiskies, meeting friends for a cup of coffee in Ardbeg distillery cafe or just simply walking home along the street that is filled with the smell of peaty smoke, drifting over from the nearby Bowmore distillery. It looks like this island, the other place, is slowly becoming my place.