One of the most anticipated events of the Blogging Calendar is, of course, Mr. Toast's Annual Christmas Tea, and following the rather unfortunate events of last year (the Swedish police are still wanting to speak to me in order to clarify some of the events that took place in that hotel in Lerum) I was determined to get to the right venue this year. Mr Toast himself has helped me avoid a repeat of last years' embarrassment by organising the event this year in Scotland, which - although not a part of Yorkshire - is not that far away. The event will be held at Torosay Castle on the Isle of Mull, and, despite the recent dreadful weather, I had managed to make it almost all the way there without mishaps. Until I got to Lochgilphead, that is, where I unfortunately took the low road to Kennacraig rather than the high road to Oban. And that was the start of a rather unfortunate series of events.
On arrival at Kennacraig, I realised my rather unfortunate mistake, but I discovered I could get a ferry from there to Port Ellen on the lovely Scottish island of Islay which, according to the map on the back page of my diary, was in approximately the right direction. Rather than having to retrace my virtual steps and head north to Oban and the main ferry service to Mull, I decided to hop over to Islay. Knowledge of Mr Toast's Christmas Tea must be widespread, all I needed to do was to ask a few friendly locals directions and all my problems would evaporate like a finely distilled malt whisky. Ah, dear reader, how right I was. Indeed, how right I was.
I arrived in the lovely little village of Port Ellen, but discovered few people on the street so I asked a passer-by whether it was early closing day. "It closed in 1983", was the somewhat strange reply, "but they still have a few bottles of the old stuff at the White Hart Hotel". My friend pointed me in the direction of a rather cozy looking hostelry and when I got inside I asked if they had any of "the old stuff" and was handed a small glass of a pale gold coloured liquid which, it appeared, I was supposed to drink rather than send to a laboratory for testing. It tasted like distilled seaweed laced with salt and pepper but it had a kick with it which must have made it a contender for a fuel source for the Apollo rocket programme. Whilst the strange liquid might have improved my motive power it seemed to interfere with my ability to pronounce words. I did manage to mumble something about looking for a party and I was sent up the road to a little settlement called Ardbeg.
"I'm looking for a party", I said to an old chap I saw leaning against a gate. At first I was a little reluctant to question him for, if truth be told, I was a little surprised to see a bearded cross-dresser in such a rural part of the community. But I'm a broad minded chap and his skirt seemed to have such a colourful pattern, I pressed ahead with my inquiry. He simply pointed me in the direction of a shed-like building and as soon as I entered someone gave me a glass of an amber-looking liquid which, according to the chap I found myself sat next to at a little trestle table "skips sweetly along at first, then becomes mean and moody in the lengthy middle of the encounter". Assuming the poor chap had been eating some less than ripe mushrooms I quickly left the place and headed down the coast for a mile or two until encountering a mill in a hollow.
"Lagavulin", said yet another cross-dressing local in answer to my unasked question. "What on earth does that mean", I asked. "A mill in a hollow", he replied giving every indication that he was addressing the kind of idiot who didn't understand the Gaelic. On discovering that I really didn't understand the local language his mood changed and he kindly invited me into the mill for a glass of the kind of amber precipitate that I was beginning to get used to. As I rolled the peaty liquor with charming hints of sherry around my mouth I expressed my appreciation at the charming but slightly unusual taste. "Unusual", he declared, "unusual: nay laddie ye need to go to Laphroaig" I tried to explain that I was really looking for an eccentric gathering of people unlike no others I had ever met. "Aye, that will be Laphroaig you'll be looking for", he said.
When I got to Laphroaig - which was only a short distance from Lagavulin - I was immediately invited into what I had now begun to recognise as a distillery. Seeing that I was beginning to look a little tired and emotionally worse for wear, someone handed me a glass of the most extraordinary tasting liquid I have ever sampled in my life. What can I say? Think of your old school nurse, and mix together a few drops of all the strange potions that she would dispense whenever you had a head cold, or head lice, or a head ache. Add a few drops of Castrol engine oil. Then bury in a peat-bed and surround it with slimy sea-weed. After leaving it to distill for a decade or two serve it in a glass and down it in one whilst proclaiming "Slainte Mhath!" The really odd thing was that by now I was getting used to the taste. I mumbled something about "Mr Toast" and my new friends immediately cried "Slainte Mhath!" again and another glass was drunk.
Quite how I came to the village of Bowmore I will never know. I remember saying something about having an appointment on the Isle of Mull and someone indicating that it was somewhere in the north. A couple of my new friends agreed to walk north with me and we eventually came to the village of Bowmore and we stopped off at another distillery to restock on essential supplies. These supplies consisted almost exclusively of glasses of greeny-gold liquid that had the unmistakable taste of a garden spade. By now I had got to the point where the more bizarre the whisky tasted, the more I liked it. I was also beginning to hallucinate. These people who wandered aimlessly from distillery to distillery with me, where they new friends or strangers. Or were they old blogging friends who I had failed to recognise in the alcoholic haze of dusk on a remote Scottish island?
Was that Willow and Betsy I shared a dram with in the distillery at Port Askaig? Was that Baino behind the bar happily dispensing glasses of malt, and could that be Brian Miller in the corner penning another telling rhyme? Was that Jayne H-H painting a mysterious mural on the wall of the bar at the Caol Isla distillery and could that be Jeffscape sat in the corner writing Chapter 47 of the Great Novel of The Third Millennium? That must be John Hayes playing banjo near the bar and I would recognise Kat Mortensen anywhere. When we got to the end of the road in Bunnahabhain, there was Kim Yanoshik and Roy Hilbinger capturing the event on film and my great friends Martin Hodges and Tony Zimnoch ready with a reviving glass or three of malt.
The only person I didn't see was Mr Toast himself and every time I asked someone about him I was handed yet another glass and made to drink it down in something of a hurry. However, I have found another ferry terminal and I think I have discovered my escape route. With luck I will see you all soon at Torosay Castle, just as soon as I have made my way across the Isle of Jura!