Work has begun on Dunyvaig Castle, a fortress built a stone’s throw away from Lagavulin distillery.
On his first visit to Islay, Professor Steven Mithen was a penniless young archaeologist who had to sleep in his car because even the local B&Bs were beyond his meagre budget.
It wasn’t whisky that drew him to the island, but its vast array of historical sites, from evidence of the first Ice Age explorers 12,000 years ago to the deserted townships of the 19th century.
As Prof Mithen continued his investigations, he needed funding – but who better to ask for a few hundred quid than the distillers who had brought Islay its modern-day fame?
He wrote to them all. None replied. This was the 1980s, and a less than buoyant Scotch whisky industry had bigger things to worry about than helping an academic to dig holes in the ground.
Much has changed since then. Prof Mithen is now an acclaimed authority on the origins of the first hunter-gatherers and farmers (among many other subjects), and is Professor of Archaeology and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Reading.
His work has taken him, notably, to southern Jordan – but he has also returned regularly to Islay, where he now has a home. And, three decades on, he has finally secured some cash from a distiller: £310,000, to be precise, out of the proceeds of Lagavulin’s 1991 Single Cask release, the last of the expressions released to mark the distillery’s bicentenary last year.
The money is going to Islay Heritage, the organisation of which Prof Mithen is a trustee, and into which he has channeled his personal research. The grant will be spent on the creation of an Islay Heritage Trail – Islay’s historic sites can be hard to access and there’s little to tell you what you’re looking at when you do find them – as well as the first detailed investigation of Dunyvaig Castle in Lagavulin Bay.
Remarkable ruins: Dunyvaig Castle watches over the entry to Lagavulin Bay
Most of what Prof Mithen and his colleagues are investigating predates Scotch whisky, but don’t for a moment imagine there’s no connection here – or, for that matter, with his researches in the Middle East.
What were our ancestors doing in Jordan 12,000 years ago? Among other things, domesticating barley. Then look at a site such as the Giant’s Grave Neolithic burial cairn on the Rinns of Islay – what did those early settlers bring with them? Barley again.
Then there’s the peat. The primal substance that gives Lagavulin and other Islay single malts their distinctive character also preserves many of the finds unearthed by archaeologists. From pre-history to today’s golden age of Islay whisky, the links run deep.
This almost symbiotic relationship is implicitly recognised in the way that Islay Heritage is going about its work. This will be no tourist trail imposed on the local community, but a co-operative effort to identify and recognise the ‘Islay 100’ – the 100 most significant archaeological sites and monuments on the island.
That number – 100 – is a sign both of the ambition of the initiative and the sheer depth of Islay’s history and heritage. And that heritage, says Prof Mithen, resounds far beyond the island’s shores, with a significance for the whole of north-western Europe.
Whisky lovers don’t need to be told that Islay is a special place. Those lucky enough to have visited the island will know that that status extends beyond whisky to its culture, landscape and people. Now it seems that we’ve just barely touched the surface of what this small Hebridean paradise has to offer.
Anyone interested in buying one of 520 bottles of Lagavulin 1991 available for purchase, priced at £1,494 each, can enter a special ballot on The Whisky Exchange website. This closes on 12 February and bottles will be allocated at random. By late last week, more than 6,000 people had registered their interest.
Of the remaining two bottles, one will go to the Diageo Archive, and the other will be auctioned at Whisky.Auction from 26 February for 10 days, with the money raised also going to Islay Heritage.
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