‘I have observed over many years working outdoors, with all sorts of people, that whatever you try to do, you cannot conquer nature.

Nature always has its own way. So I’m interested in how we can find comfortableness with that nature and tap into the wild within us – because I know that everyone has a wild part of them.”

Borders-born wilderness guide Jeremy Hastings moved to the Inner Hebridean island of Islay in 2001 with his wife Tink and their children Megan, now 14, Morwenna, 12, and Michael, 10. The family had been living in Carcassonne in south-west France, where Hastings worked for the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux, the French equivalent of the RSPB. They bought a tiny bothy in Port Charlotte, which lies on the shores of Loch Indaal on the west of the island in an area known as the Rhinns, a geological gem of ancient metamorphic gneiss. The bothy, one of the oldest houses in the village, had only four walls and a roof.

Hastings pops a couple of pieces of peat into the stove. We are sitting in their “hobbit house” at the round wooden table which takes up most of their living space. This is where Tink home educates the children. Hastings is cooking me supper and talking about his work.

“I’m interested in this whole idea of the journey,” he says. “Whether it’s going out for an afternoon to collect wild food on the beach, or making a journey to the caves where we see evidence that humans have slept on the same floor, midden piles, sleeping platforms, growing areas, and more recent 18th-century cave-wall graffiti, each journey is wrapped into its own time zone. So if you rush somewhere, you’re not making a journey properly. Nowadays, everything is too quick, too immediate. I’m not saying I’m a Luddite but I think we miss this opportunity of having to wait, of having to make something with purpose.”

Hastings is moving more and more towards custom-made trips, from a morning’s birding to a considerably more arduous trek up to the high lochans at the top end of Islay Estate – he works closely with the island’s five estates – following the route people have taken for centuries driving their cattle up to the high grazing grounds. Here, he teaches visitors how to fly fish in hill lochans. They camp out (Hastings can provide lightweight tents); he brings local bacon which he pan-fries to go with the fish guests have (hopefully) caught. “Freshly filleted brown trout and bacon – it’s just exquisite,” he says. Hastings teaches them how to make their own bread, “then we chat around the fire, and go to bed”.

Some people take a long time to adapt to Hastings’ pace. They may lead hectic lives, so it can come as a shock to their system. “Some people just get wiped out by it,” he says. “They go to bed at 10pm and sleep for 10-12 hours. When they wake, they say, ‘I’ve never done that before.’ Other folk have gone off early and have been watching the golden eagles or catching fish.”

The journey is not a means to an end – it is an end in itself, says Hastings. “The people who find it the most difficult are those who keep saying: ‘What’s the plan? What are we going to do next?’ We’re already doing something, I say. Don’t worry about what we’re going to do. Let’s concentrate on what we’re doing now. When you go home, you want to be able to look at this journey as a series of nows. And there’ll be times when it will be really challenging and uncomfortable for you, but there will be other moments where it will be exquisite.”

When Hastings is out with his clients, he never knows what they are going to see. “Nothing’s guaranteed, but at some point, something will happen – red deer, a pair of divers. One day we came across two adders mating. Fantastic.”

They forage on the shoreline for mussels, oysters, cockles and limpets, which they cook on a small fire. Hastings recalls one visitor who wanted to live off the land completely. “One day, we only found three mussels. He’d eaten two because he was much bigger than me,” says Hastings. “He still phones me up. We chat, and he says, ‘Those two mussels were the best meal I’ve ever had because I knew that was all we were going to have that day.’”

Hastings tells me about some of his upcoming clients. There’s the young family who are returning to Islay with their grandparents. He’ll take them out each day to discover the island’s flora and fauna at a pace that suits them. There’s also a man based in Paris who’s flying to Islay to spend some time with his son, learning to fly fish.

“A wilderness guide helps people see what’s already there – little things like butterflies, healing plants, feeding plants like silverweed which saved the Ileachs [the native islanders] from the potato famine,” explains Hastings. “I interpret the landscape for people. They don’t see it because their eyes and ears have been closed for many reasons, because we’ve lost connectivity with the wild within.”

The same year Hastings started up his not-for-profit business at Port Charlotte, another entrepreneurial venture began down the road as the first spirit ran off the stills at the reborn Bruichladdich Distillery in the eponymous village after a group of private investors bought the mothballed Victorian distillery the previous year. The innovative Bruichladdich team now have half their barley requirements grown by Islay farmers, and a drying shed was built in time for the 2009 harvest.

Around Loch Gruinart, a sea loch on the north-west coast of the Rhinns, Craig Archibald and his wife Petra raise Aberdeen Angus cattle, blackface ewes … and oysters. Archibald is now putting down around one million seed oysters a year in the loch. He sends his produce to the Scottish mainland besides supplying islanders, and local hotels and restaurants.

So private enterprise on the Rhinns of Islay is alive and well. The recipe for success? Take half a dozen tangy Loch Gruinart oysters, one dram of Bruichladdich Waves, add a sprinkling of heath-spotted orchids, the call of the curlew, a measure of sea breeze, and season to taste. It doesn’t get much better.


Caledonian MacBrayne operates ferries from Kennacraig on the Kintyre peninsula to Port Askaig and Port Ellen, with passenger return fares from £15.60 and car return fares from £84 (prices valid until October 23). Visit www.calmac.co.uk or call 08705 650100. Scottish Citylink service 926 travels from Edinburgh to Kennacraig via Glasgow twice daily. Visit www.citylink.co.uk or call 0871 266 3333. Flybe has return flights from Glasgow to Islay from £68 return. Visit www.flybe.com.

Where to stay

For B&B, try the five-star rated Loch Gorm House at Bruichladdich – www.lochgormhouse.com – or Bruichladdich Acadamy house at the distillery (email ella@bruichladdich.com). Farmer James Brown has self-catering cottages at Port Charlotte – www.octomorefarm.com – while Carnduncan Cottages at Gruinart are also recommended. Visit www.carnduncancottages.co.uk.


For more on Jeremy Hastings’ wilderness trips visit www.islaywildernessguide.co.uk. The Bruichladdich Distillery website has lots of useful information for visitors to Islay. Visit www.bruichladdich.com.