Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Day 10: The Water of Life

March 20th, and my Island Universe tour is almost over.  Only one more stop, and after all the schools talks I've given discussing the prospects for finding water - and life - elsewhere in the Universe, it seems appropriate (if slightly cheesy) that my final leg takes me to Islay: home of nine distilleries making Scotland's very own water of life.

I set off from Kennacraig on the 7am ferry, and am very struck by both the remoteness of the ferry port (compared with the relative metropolis of Ullapool where my odyssey began) and the impressive new ship I am about to board - the Finlaggan.

Onboard the ship was equally impressive:  spacious and open car deck, modern and comfortable interior fittings, and even free wireless internet!  Having grown quite fond of the "Lord of the Isles", which had transported me reliably to and from the western extremes of the Hebrides last week, this still felt as if I had stepped into the 21st century.  It was also striking to note the dedication plaque on board, however:

which I guess tells its own story about the recent history of shipbuilding on the clyde - although I hear the World's first "hybrid" ferries are currently under construction.

The journey passed quickly and by about 9am we were pulling into Port Askaig, on the Sound of Islay, facing the coast of Jura.

Next it was a short 15 minute drive to Bowmore, on the far side of the island, where Islay High School is situated, immediately adjacent to Bowmore Distillery.  There I met the physics teacher Phil Kitching, who had organised a series of talks with three different groups:  the "certificate class" (Islay HS has small enough numbers that they can teach all the students taking standard grades, highers and advanced highers in Physics together), the second years and the first years.  I covered the (now) familiar ground with these three groups:  a talk on dark matter and dark energy, one on stars and the formation of the chemical elements and one on detecting exoplanets and the search for ET Life.  The third group (the 1st years) were missing their French class to come along and their French teacher came with them too, which gave us a chance to think a little about what language we might use to communicate with any alien lifeforms we might find (although it must be said I don't think it'll be French!).

Over the course of the day I also met with Ian Stuart, Head of Technology and Deputy Head of the High School, and was fascinated to find out more about the school's radical policy on ICT which sees every pupil equipped with a laptop / tablet computer and much of the teaching delivered via wireless intranet.  This really seems to work well and it was very interesting to hear how much the school saves on photocopying costs as a result!

I also had the pleasure of meeting Tristan, one of the 6th year students, who has clearly been doing a lot of reading and thinking of his own.  He had a wide range of questions for me, on everything from neutrino oscillations to majorana particles to the Einstein Field equations.  I did my best to answer them, or at least to give him some more pointers for how to better follow them up.  I was very pleased to hear from Phil later on that Tristan is planning to study physics after he leaves school and I'm hoping that we might see him at Glasgow next year.

After lunch, and a short stroll round the harbour at Bowmore

it was off next to the Bowmore Distillery:

Phil had arranged a tour for us, which seemed a perfect way to round off my trip.   Although I've been on many a distillery tour in my time I always find them interesting, especially with regard to the subtle and important differences in the production methods employed by each company.  In the case of Bowmore they were proud of the fact that they still carry out a lot of their own malting and we were shown around the malting floor to begin with.

During the tour we crossed the courtyard and saw the classic pagoda towers, although one of the chimneys had been blown off during the gales of January 2nd (which brought down some slates from our roof back in Glasgow too).

The tour ended with a visit to the stills themselves

then to the storeroom 

and then back to the visitors centre and a quick dram.  I also had a look in the shop, and found the latest example in my ongoing quest to track down whiskies which are as old as I am.  (Sadly my ability to actually buy these ended many years ago, on the night of my PhD viva when I had a glass of 26 year-old Springbank!)

I then zoomed back to Port Askaig, admiring the Paps of Jura along the way (Phil had told me that he lives on Jura - which has a primary school which his kids go to, but he has to take the ferry across the Sound of Islay back and forth every day).  We got an even better view of the Jura mountains on the ferry (this time the slightly older MV Hebridean Isles) on the way back.

An hour or so later we had passed the Finlaggan on its way back to Islay and we got a wonderful view of it disappearing off into the sunset...

We landed about 7.15pm and I made the short drive back up to Tarbert, where I was stopping off for the night before heading back to Glasgow first thing in the morning.

So my tour was finally over:  27 talks on 9 islands across 9 days (and a few more islands traversed too: North Uist, South Uist, Eriskay...). I'd spoken to nearly 1600 people - aged 4 to 84 - and met some wonderfully dedicated, enthusiastic and talented teachers.  I'd seen some of the darkest skies I've ever witnessed in the northern hemisphere on the far-flung outpost of Tiree.  I'd  also seen some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in the world, right here on our doorstep.    I can't think of a better way to have spent National Science and Engineering Week.  I was reminded of the tales I'd read in my various biographies of his life, of how Albert Einstein had given lecture tours around the world that involved long sea voyages to get him there.  I'd been given a glimpse of that world for myself - in the microcosm of the Scottish islands.  I'm glad to be going home of course but the memories of my Island Universe tour will stay with me for a very long time.

May the force be with you


  1. Hello Martin,

    I really enjoyed your series of blog posts on your epic tour - well done on all those school and public talks and writing up the journey so entertainingly and so well illustrated too. I'm rather envious! Although I've been to Mull and Skye, it's still one of my lifetime ambitions to do a similar tour. Looking forward to more posts of yours...hope life is treating you well in Glasgow.

    all the best,

    1. Hi David

      Great to hear from you! It's been a long time...

      Glad you enjoyed the blog; it was a fantastic experience and a privilege to meet such great teachers and soak up the atmosphere of so many communities. I'm hoping to keep my blog going, although I doubt I'll have quite so many photos of rugged coastlines in the weeks to come!

      All the best