About the last thing I expected to find on the northern Scottish islands of Orkney was an Italian chapel. But, as an aficionado of the myriad isles that dot the Scottish coast, neither was I particularly surprised.
The chapel – over 2,200 kilometres as the crow flies from Rome – was built during the latter years of the Second World War, when several hundred Italian prisoners of war were interned on the principle island of Orkney to help construct a series of stone causeways that became known as the Churchill Barriers. What the prisoners lacked in their windswept camp, however, was a chapel until, in late 1943, two small huts were made available. They joined them and, with items begged, borrowed or stolen, and with an indomitable force of will, turned them into the gorgeous if diminutive church.
It's the sort of eccentricity you grow almost accustomed to encountering on Scotland's islands – along with air so pure it seems scrubbed clean by the surrounding seas, a magnificently relaxed, almost Caribbean-esque approach to life, landscapes replete with drama and, on a full half-dozen of them, including and perhaps most famously on Orkney and Islay, wonderfully illogical distilleries.
Orkney boasts two such bizarrely isolated distilleries, of course (the reinvigorated Scapa and more celebrated Highland Park), but some say that the secret to the charm of the islands – never "the Orkneys," please – lies not in its aged whiskies, but its ancient past.
Drive out to the mesmerizing circle of standing stones known as the Ring of Brodgar, thought to date from 3000 B.C., or the heart-stopping cliffs at Yesnaby, perilously free of fencing, and you are struck immediately by the indeterminable oldness of the place. And thanks perhaps to the remoteness of Orkney, it's a history that feels not at all commercialized or packaged, but rather palpable and raw.
Closer to the capital of Kirkwall, the visitor centre at Highland Park will acquaint you not just with the distillery and its many fine expressions of uisge beatha, as the Scots call their "water of life," but also the Viking heritage of Orkney. Still sufficiently strong that natives view themselves as much Scandinavian as Scot, and more Orcadian than either, the land's Norwegian ties are apparent in everything – from the centuries-old St. Magnus Cathedral, said to be the spiritual heart of the islands, to local jewellery design and even the new Valhalla Collection of whiskies.
Past mountainous Skye, with its smoky Talisker whisky, and restful Mull, with its sweeter Tobermory malts, and almost as far to the Scottish south as Orkney is to the north, you'll find Islay – an island greatly defined by its whisky. It is possible to fly to Islay (pronounced "Eye-lah"), but the best route is to take the ferry from the Kintyre Peninsula to Port Ellen. As the sluggish boat approaches the end of its two-hour journey, it passes first one, then another, and finally a third distillery, not to mention ancient ruins of Dunyvaig Castle, all set against a backdrop of auburn hills and verdant valleys.
Exiting the ferry, the cars holding your fellow passengers melt away, until it's just you, the road and acres of peat fields. It would be an exaggeration to say that peat is everywhere on the island, although it can seem that way. It's sometimes burned in fireplaces in place of wood. The Port Ellen Maltings, as well as those at the Bowmore and Laphroaig distilleries, are amply stocked with it, and most of the whiskies distilled there taste of its smoke. It is, quite simply, the signature of Islay. Peat is also what fuels the passion of many of those who visit Islay, a half million of whom have even registered as landowners – albeit of only a square foot of field – through the Friends of Laphroaig program.
But you needn't be a "peathead" or even a whisky aficionado to appreciate the island's considerable charms, from its many miles of coastline to the beauty of Loch Indaal, its 10,000 years of history and its easy-going inhabitants.
As with all of Scotland's whisky islands, including neighbouring Jura and Arran, each home to a distillery that bears its island's name, Islay's magic extends well beyond the mysteries of distillation. And whether found in an ancient circle of standing stones or an oddly compelling peat bog, each boasts a romance that will infect your soul, propelling at least your imagination to return time and again.
Andrea Gillies lived two years on Orkney caring for her Alzheimer's-afflicted mother-in-law, an experience she chronicled in her book, Keeper. Her latest novel is The White Lie. She talked to Stephen Beaumont about the must-see sights.
"Orkney is unlike anywhere else I have ever been, and is a must-see for any international traveller. The neolithic and Viking archeology and history of the Orkney islands are unparalleled in the world. The chambered cairn of Maes Howe, built by neolithic peoples as a tomb aligned to the winter equinox, and the extraordinary village of Skara Brae, hidden by sand dunes for 3,000 years, are world-class visits. Go anywhere in Orkney and scratch at the earth and it bleeds archeology.
Orkney's bars are basic and confined pretty much to fishermen and farmers, and there are hotels which look as if they have been transported via time machine from 1976 complete with tartan carpets and keg beer. Restaurant-wise, our then-local place, The Creel, has a big reputation, and is wonderful for seafood and international-style home cooking.