By Mavis Gulliver
Twenty-seven years of living in the Hebrides is coming to a close so this will be my last letter from Islay. I look from my cabin window to the view that has dominated my life for so long. I round up the memories and hope that the people who move into our house will gain as much pleasure from the garden as we have had in creating it. It is a far cry from the land we took over all those years ago. An acre of bracken has been transformed into a haven where over 200 species of wild plants flourish and provide a habitat for a range of insects, birds and mammals.
All wildlife is welcome - even roe deer despite their habit of de-barking young trees. We don’t wage war on snails either. They provide food for song thrushes and it is always interesting to come across a mating pair. This is a fascinating process as every snail has both male and female reproductive organs. Despite this, they generally mate with another snail before they are able to lay eggs.
Hedgehogs have been introduced to the island and occasionally frequent the garden. I am somewhat concerned by their habit of feasting on the eggs of ground-nesting birds especially when there is a Sandpiper nest in the long grasses close to my cabin. Sometimes I meet one wandering along the grassy pathways in my garden. Then, its usual response is to curl up in a ball until I move away. Even when there are no sightings I know of their presence by their shiny black droppings.
By August much of the island was tinged with purple shades of Heather, Calluna vulgaris and the larger-flowered Bell Heather, Erica cinerea. Heavy crops of haws ripened on the Hawthorn trees and brambles continued into September. If the old wives’ tales are true, we could be in for a long, harsh winter. Time will tell.
I enjoyed a stroll along a small beach at Kintra where the southern edge of the big strand meets the northern end of The Oa. This is often a good area for seeing Chough and for finding something of interest on one of the tiny beaches.
Over many years and miles of beachcombing I have rarely found a sea ball. On this occasion I was surprised to find dozens littering the sand. Roughly the size of a tennis ball they are created from fibres of underwater plants. Tangled together by wave action in shallow waters they are apparently so common in Sardinia and Tunisia that they are collected by hand and used as insulation material.
Throughout the summer my husband and I have continued collecting and preparing the 22 botanicals which add their distinctive flavours to The Botanist Gin. It is an interesting job and heartwarming to know that the product has been so successful that it has cemented the future for Bruichladdich. The distillery has become the island’s biggest employer with job opportunities across the world as well as on Islay. Here I must pay tribute to Jim McEwan who selected the relative quantities of the nine main botanicals before choosing the Islay botanicals from our suggested list. All together they are a heady mix and it is hard to choose a favourite but mention must be made of Meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria and Lady’s Bedstraw Galium verum which are currently filling the drying room with their rich scent.
One of the interesting aspects of our role has been to demonstrate the properties of these plants to Brand Ambassadors who come to stay at The Botanist Academy. Using fresh, dry and tinctured material in addition to projected photographs we discuss the relative properties of the Islay plants. Here, a group from Japan familiarise themselves with the flavours which each botanical contributes to the finished product.
Because we are leaving Islay in early October we have also spent six months in training someone to take over our role. We will miss the enthusiasm of everyone we meet at Bruichladdich but are content to hand over the responsibilities of sustainable foraging and meticulous processing. What else will we miss? Once again, time will tell. We will cherish our memories of our years in the Inner Hebrides but we look forward to engaging with new places and new people.
For us, the time is right for a new adventure.
Mavis Gulliver’s passion for islands and wildlife dominate her writing. Her work is based on close observation and a sense of place. Her poems appear in magazines, anthologies and in her two collections, Slate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn and Waymarks. Her children’s fiction allows her imagination to run wild through landscapes that she knows well. Cry at Midnight, Clickfinger and The Snake Wand are set on islands and each has a Facebook page. Her website gives further information and includes a monthly blog detailing her activities. She is working on a poetry collection entitled From One Island to Another.
NB The editors of The Island Review would like to express their heartfelt thanks Mavis Gulliver for her rich contributions to the journal and wish her well for her new adventure.