Awards & Events

Nothing like a spot of pillaging

As crazy ideas go, pillaging malts on Islay for charity is pretty crazy. Dave Broom tracked down some of the guilty parties and asked them exactly what they thought they were doing
By Dave Broom
He remembered the barrel roll. The laughs they’d had, the too-late night on Jura and the push up the hill at Port Askaig the next morning with thick ringing heads. The way the island came together, the distilleries working together, the roar of the staves on the road. Something similar was needed.For charity. For cancer and the lifeboat. He looks at the bay every morning when he wakes, sees the waves from the stillhouse across at Lagavulin.And Jim MacFarlane has the Kathleen, that Irish skiff. The idea forms and when Kevin Campbell has an idea it usually becomes reality.Dave Barr (Bruichladdich): “We were sitting in the pub, dramming, when he comes up with this scheme about rowing round the island pillaging malt from each still. You can imagine what the reaction was like. All the bravado comes out: ‘Aye, nae bother” ‘I was in a pedalo in Spain once. Cannae be any worse than that.’ Next thing, Kevin’s got it organised.”Kevin Campbell: “Experience? I had none at all. But there were plenty of guys who had knowledge of rowing, of the sea, who knew what you could expect.“We met with them in January to see if it could be done. They said it could. You beauty! We were off.”The Kathleen lay light in the water. Jim MacFarlane’s father had fished in one like her and Jim wanted to have one the same. He had her specially made in Ireland.They sit on her benches, feet on the pebbles for ballast, crane round to look at the dragon’s head on the prow. She’s like something coming out of the past.Kevin: “She was ideal. She’s long and thin and quite easy for four guys to row. She was like the boats they fished from in the old days ... but we were pillaging and we pillaged some good stuff!”Jim assesses everyone, making four teams with a mix of experienced and novice rowers. Kevin: “He knew the hard bits, so he put together a couple of beefy teams to do those. Each manager also rowed either to his distillery or to the next one. It was all down to him and safety was paramount.”The crowd is gathering in the early grey dawn at Bunnahabhain pier.John MacLellan: “It was really weird coming down first thing in the morning to find dozens of people from the other distilleries munching bacon rolls and drinking coffee.”The first 25 litres of a 10 year-old malt is pillaged and decanted into the barrel.John: “We’d selected a very nice Spanish sherry butt which I thought would help to off-set some of the peat from the other end of the island. Burn Stewart actually had to buy the butt specially from Edrington.”7am. 4th July. The long oars sink into the water, the first pull and they’re off down the Sound heading to Caol Ila. Billy Stitchell (Caol Ila) and John MacLellan doing their tint, the black water coiling beneath them, feeling the tug of the tide, shouts from the other crews on the flotilla of support boats behind them.The skull and crossbones flaps from the stern, the pennants on the support boat rattle in the breeze.The salt in the face. The roll and dip, the pull, the first sweat of the day, the creak of wood, the hiss of the keel through the water, the smell of Caol Ila as it plashes into the cask. Was it tough?David: “Yes. Your back would be sore, your hands blistered but though you’d be tired after your stint, as soon as you were out, you were itching to get back in.”Down the Sound of Islay, the tide picking you up, speeding you down.Kevin: “We were doing 5.2 knots at one point. We didn’t even need to row because it was so fast.”David: “We’re heading to McArthur’s Head, oars up and Windy Campbell (Laphroaig) stands up in the boat, undoes his jacket and has it like flapping like a sail. We hit six knots. Fair lived up to his name!”The land ribbons out on either side, otters and deer watch you pass. Round McArthurs Head and finally along the Kildalton coastline.David: “Neilly Bonar’s at the tiller opposite Churn Island and asks the skipper if there’s enough water for us to get through. He cracks back, ‘As long as the seagulls aren’t walking, we’re OK’.”Ardbeg is pillaged and the ladies crew takes over to Lagavulin for the next raid. Under the ramparts of Dunyvaig like in the days of Somerled, the “summer sailor” when the fighting men of Islay would have rowed from here to all parts of Dalriada, down to Ireland. The cask is filling up with the peaty boys from the south.It’s good seeing the managers doing some work at last.Robin Shields (Laphroaig): “I rowed out of Laphroaig, but was substituted after the first few hundred yards or so. In that time I had managed to catch a crab, and lose my balance off the seat. I was pretty pleased to watch someone else do exactly the same thing straight after!”Kevin: “It was a pretty heavy sea and the wind was against the boat so Jim called for one of the beefy crews to take over. No sooner are they in when Billy Johnston (Laphroaig) rows air and ends up in the keel with his oars in the air. The next day he’s presented with a cake with two yellow wellies sticking out the top.”The wind picks up as the Kathleen edges towards Port Ellen and the end of day one. Apart from the ceilidh in the White Hart that is. And a few scoops.Billy Johnston: “None of us drank if we were to be rowing later that day, but we were more than happy to accept hospitality after we’d finished our stint!”David: “The camaraderie was second to none. At the end of each day there’s everyone slagging off each other’s whisky....then drinking it.”5th July. 7am. Bacon rolls and a few nippy heads. The strain is taken. Lean forward and heave.Windy: “We had a pilot. Tonic the dolphin escorted us from the moment we left Port Ellen all the way to Loch Indaal.”Five down. Two to go, but before the embrace of Loch Indaal, the Oa has to be rounded. Tide-slammed gullies, piled up rubble. You can’t row here without thinking of the ghosts. The monument above.David: “There’s another monument on the Oa like the Kildalton cross lying on the grass. I’d never knew of it. It was inspiring sailing under those cliffs. As we turned the Oa we hit against the tide. It was like we’d hit a brick wall. Those heavy sea oars were bent back like longbows.”Now on the home stretch, heading away from the Big Strand, aiming across the loch for Bruichladdich.“Everyone did an hour and three quarter shift. We all thought once we’re round the Oa it’s no problem, but it went on forever. Just as we’re all dying of thirst out comes Jim McEwan and Duncan McGillivray like the 7th cavalry in a motorboat chucking bottles of 10 year-old at us.”Kevin: “The sight of Jim coming out like that might have been what made one manager feel a bit sick.’David: “…or it could have been because you guys in the support boat were hauling in mackerel, Nazza Campbell was frying them right there and handing them down to the Kathleen. That seemed to made him a wee bit green around the gills.”The three support boats hold off and tie themselves together.Kevin: “Angus Darroch (Bowmore) had his accordion with him so we sail into Bruichladdich following behind the Kathleen singing songs.”David: “I’m from Bruichladdich, work there and I’m rowing in with this music behind me. It was so moving.”A 10 year-old from refill sherry is pillaged. Duncan McGillivray and Ian ‘Percy’ McPherson (Bowmore) are the latest to join the Kathleen.Percy: “I rowed that final pull from Bruichladdich to Bowmore.“We had three women rowing with us. That was fantastic in itself! What a sight seeing a woman strain like that.”Anon: ”Percy? I’ve never seen such a terrified looking man in my life! He was like a limpet in a lifejacket.”Arms aching, you can taste the food and the drams waiting for you at Bowmore. The final 25 litres is pillaged and the cask is sealed.Percy: “We chose a 10 year-old from a fresh sherry butt.“Oh it was black, black as can be.”Then Billy Johnston has another mishap.“I fell unloading the cargo at Bowmore pier and fractured my wrist. I was forced to take on plenty of liquid anaesthetic.”Percy: “It was great. The whole thing, the weather, the people, the craic. The fact that we were all helping one another... and of course they ended up at the best distillery for the ceilidh.“They all seemed exhausted after the row. Funny how they seemed to wake up with a few drams inside them.”He’s thinking again. Of what can be done for the next big event. Something to top this. Something crazy, something to show how this island pulls together. He knows they’ll be with him.