There was cloud and wind, but the weather generally good as we started our distillery tours on Islay, especially considering the gale we experienced the day before. After breakfast we made our way from Bowmore through the center of the island heading for the southern Kildalton coast. This is a rugged stretch of ocean front with sheltered bays which played home to the four distilleries which used to operate here. Only three of them still produce whisky, more on that in a coming post, while the forth–Port Ellen–has been silent for close to 30 years. At the town of Port Ellen we turned east and headed down the road past Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg distilleries to see the Kildalton Cross and Chapel.
The ruined Chapel though interesting, and the site of some ancient grave markers, is not nearly as impressive and important as the cross for which the site is famed. Believed to be around 1300 years old the Kildalton Cross is thought to have come from Iona, the spiritual home of Celtic Christianity in the medieval period. Iona is a 3×1 mile island off the coast of Mull and is the burial site of more European monarchs than any other place in the world. The name Kildalton may be translated to mean “Church of the Disciple”, and there is some speculation that a monastery may have once existed in the area. Although Islay’s populations is less the 4,000 people today, at one time it had more than 15,000 people and during the independent reign of the Lord of the Isles it was politically the most important place on the west coast of Scotland. The Kildalton Cross is rife with Biblical motifs such as Cain murdering Abel and the Sacrifice of Issac and is considered one of the finest early Christian crosses in Scotland. Some restoration work on the cross in the late 1800’s found another cross beneath the Kildalton one and beneath that the burial of a man and a woman. The bones of the man suggested he had suffered a particularly violent death. Copies of both crosses were made to preserve them for future generations, with the originals left on display.
The Chapel, or Kildalton Parish church is an interesting building. It is believed that it would have originally had a thatched roof, and dates from the 12th or 13th Century, meaning it to is of an impressive age. The church was part of an important parish from the middle of the 1400’s and was still in use well into the late 1700’s until it was abandoned as populations along this stretch of coast moved west towards Ardbeg.