Islay loomed large on the horizon as we ploughed past Kintyre from Kennacraig with CalMac Ferries. Passing Gigha, we headed towards the Sound of Islay – the narrow channel separating Islay and Jura – seeing a few solitary harbour porpoises along the way. Famed for its distilleries, fertile landscapes and island charm, Islay is known as the “Queen of the Hebrides”.
Getting to Islay is easy; take the Cal Mac ferry from Kennacraig, on Scotland’s west coast (about two-and-a-half hours from Glasgow), the journey takes two hours, and you can enjoy some beautiful scenery and wildlife along the way. Alternatively, daily flights operate between Glasgow and the small island airport in Islay.
Arriving at the small ferry port of Post Askaig, with its steep and winding ascent and views across the sound to neighbouring Jura, I felt a warming sense of familiarity at being back on an island. Islands have always inspired me; they’re places where I feel at home. I can identify with the people and places and feel supported and nurtured by the familiar sights and smells of the sea surrounding them. It’s hard to describe islanders’ deep connections with the place they call home. It’s something deep and visceral – just out of reach – yet as tangible as the clear boundaries that define them, binding people to place and a clear spot on the map, setting the parameters to which we live our lives.
First, to dispel any preconceptions that visitors may have – Islay is not remote. Like most islands, they’re not ‘remote empty landscapes’, and Islay is no exception. Islay supports a thriving population of about 3,200 people. It has all the amenities anyone could need, including a Coop in Bowmore and Port Charlotte, a hospital, hotels, pubs and leisure facilities. The idea that Islay may be a remote wilderness is a misnomer.
The first thing that struck me was that Islay hadn’t lost its friendly roadside manner. Every passing car gives the obligatory island wave – lifting one finger from the wheel to acknowledge each passing car on the road. I mused that living in Shetland’s Mainland, this is something we’ve lost, generally replacing it with a passive sort of indignation towards every other road user, particularly those who hold us up on the road.
Have a dram at the distilleries
Islay life is dominated by the distilleries that have punctuated the air and landscapes with the sights and smells of whisky production for generations. Tucked away along the shore, a succession of distilleries; distinctive long, white buildings sitting low to the ground with prominent pagodas filling the air with the rich, distinct smell of peat dominating this gentle landscape.
It may seem an obvious suggestion, but whisky really does dominate the island, and it’s well worth building in time to visit a few of them and sample the distinctive peated whiskies that the island is famous for producing.
Islay is home to nine distilleries, with another few in the pipeline. Bowmore, Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Bruichladdich, Kilchoman, Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain and Ardnahoe are familiar household names to those who enjoy a drop of Uisge Beath – the water of life.
We visited most of the distilleries in Islay, sampling the drams and taking distillery tours. Still, if pressed to choose, our favourite was the understated Kilchoman Distillery, tucked away in the Rhinns of Islay on Islay’s west coast, inland from the sea and secluded amongst gentle farmland. Kilchoman is the only distillery on the island that carries out the entire process from farm to bottle. Kilchoman grows their own barley used in their whiskies, and every part of the process takes place on-site. It’s also worth noting, for those travelling with children, that, unlike many other distilleries, Kilchoman welcomes kids on their tours – they even have a little quiz to complete during the tour. Our bairns loved getting a little science lesson in distillation and a handful of barley seeds to take home to grow.
Tasting notes aside, each distillery has its own special pull. Caol Ila’s location overlooking the Sound of Islay across to Jura felt quiet and secluded, tucked into the hillside with breathtaking views across to the Paps of Jura. For food, Ardnahoe and Ardbeg were real highlights. Still, Laphroig’s seaside location, with the sun breaking through clouds and reflecting from the whitewashed buildings, casting glistening beams of light across the mirror-calm sea beyond, was a real highlight.
For the gin lover, Bruichladdich Distillery not only produces the most peated whisky in the world but is also the producer of my all-time favourite gin – The Botanist.
For those who want a fantastic experience, try the Three Distillery Pathway, which takes you along a footpath from Port Ellen to Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg across a distance of 5.5km. The paved path is excellent – arguably better than the island roads! – and easily accessible for walkers, cyclists, pushchairs and wheelchairs.
I recommend booking a few tours before you arrive as the distilleries are busy, and booking is recommended if you want to get a behind-the-scenes insight into whisky production – and a dram or three!
Experience the Carraig Fhada lighthouse and the Singing Sands
The iconic Carraig Fhada lighthouse, commissioned in 1832 in memory of the wife of Walter Frederick Campbell, a local MP, is a fantastic walk from Port Ellen. The distinctive square structure stands on a rocky outcrop, accessible by a small concrete path flanked by the sea on either side, which often washes over it during stormy weather.
South of Carraig Fhada Lighthouse are the Singing Sands – given this unusual name due to the noise the sand makes as you walk over it, although I couldn’t get them to sing to me! A waymarker signposts this short walk, and be sure to look out for the wild goats along the way that feed on the seaweed and graze the shoreline.
Hike to the American Monument
On the Oa Peninsula, on Islay’s southwest coast, the American Monument is a poignant memorial to the American soldiers who died during two naval accidents in the First World War. To commemorate the loss of the Tuscania and the Otranto, the American Red Cross built the imposing monument in 1920 to remember the hundreds of lives lost to these tragedies.
The Oa, an RSPB Nature Reserve, is accessible via a boardwalk across the moor and out towards the impressive cliffs with views across to Ireland on the western horizon. The reserve is home to seabirds – including fulmars, kittiwakes and razorbills – corncrakes and golden eagles.
We were struck by the number of birds of prey we saw. Being from Shetland, where birds of prey are few, we were amazed by the number of eagles and buzzards we saw throughout our stay in Islay – it was a real treat to watch them.
Portnahven is the most westerly point of Islay, a 35-minute drive from Bowmore, passing Bruichladdich and Port Charlotte along the way. This picturesque village clings to the shoreline, with its row of beautiful whitewashed cottages strung out like a line of washing along the bay, overlooking the sandy beach that dominates the village.
Portnahaven isn’t just a photographer’s dream; it’s also an excellent spot to view the seals, who arguably outnumber the human population!
Shadowing the village is the impressive Rhinns of Islay Lighthouse, situated on the island of Orsay. The lighthouse was built by Robert Stevenson in 1825 and can be seen from Portnahaven.
Take a tour with Islay Sea Adventures
I may be biased but taking a tour is the best way to get under the skin of a place and delve deeper into the culture and history. There really is no better way to explore than with a local, and we chose to take a boat trip with Islay Sea Adventures.
We booked on the Wildlife Trip, departing from Port Ellen and passing the three distilleries of Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg, learning about their history – and sampling a dram – as we went. After this, we went to Islay’s Special Area of Conservation, a smattering of small islands occupied by a large seal colony, red deer and eagles. Along the way, we were treated to a beautiful display of dolphins keen to play among the bow waves – incredible!
Browse the books and gifts in the Celtic House in Bowmore
Sitting on the shores of Loch Indaal, Bowmore is the largest town in Islay and home to the famous Bowmore Distillery. There are also some great shopping opportunities in Bowmore, including the Celtic House, where I spent a small fortune on books. With a coffee shop upstairs and a treasure trove of souvenirs and gifts, there was something to distract the whole family as I browsed the fantastic selection of local and Scottish books.
Eat local seafood
It’s no secret that I could live off seafood, and islands, by their very nature, are among the best places to sample local seafood. Islay’s food and drink scene were fantastic – putting Shetland to shame, I’m sorry to say.
We had some fantastic meals, but my highlight was the Lochside Hotel. With restaurant views across Loch Indaal – right on the water’s edge – we enjoyed fresh scallops, crab, langoustines and mussels, all washed down with local IPA.
Other foodie highlights included Peatzeria in Bowmore, Port Charlotte Hotel and Sea Salt in Port Ellen. I shamelessly indulged my food weakness, eating scallops every day, and I’m not ashamed to say it!
Marvel at the carvings on the Celtic Cross at Kildalton
Not forgetting to indulge in some history and culture, drive to Kildalton and marvel at one of the best-preserved Celtic crosses in Scotland. This large monolithic cross is believed to have been carved in the second half of the eighth century and is similar to related crosses found in Iona.
Explore Port Ellen
Be sure to spend a little time in Port Ellen, Islay’s second-largest town. The picture-perfect port is dominated by the sweeping sandy beach that curves around the bay. Port Ellen is also home to Port Ellen Maltings, where most of the malts are produced for the island’s distilleries.
The town was founded in 1821 by Walter Frederic Campbell and is named after his wife, Ellinor. The town is well-served with several shops, hotels, restaurants, pubs and a couple of excellent food trailers!
Shop in the Box
On the road out to the Mull of Oa Nature Reserve is Shop in the Box, a small honesty shop situated in the old red phone box. Selling cards, prints, fridge magnets and small souvenirs, this is a delightful honesty box – select your souvenir and place the money in the box. What could scream ‘island community’ and ‘trust’ more than an honesty-based shopping system?
Visit the Currie Sands
Islay has some beautiful beaches, including the vast Kilchoman Beach and the famous Lossit Bay, but my favourites were found on the backroads from Portnahaven to Port Charlotte, on the west side of the Rhinns. This area is punctuated by small beaches, including the beautiful Currie Sands. Exploring the tidelines is a joy, and we discovered handfuls of ‘mermaid’s purses’ – egg cases – and glistening pieces of colourful beach glass and pottery.
We had such a fantastic time staying in Islay and can’t wait to return. We spent four nights staying in a farm cottage overlooking Bruichladdich. Sharon was a wonderful host, and the house was the perfect base to explore Islay from.
Accommodation: staying in a farm cottage overlooking Bruichladdich
Islay Sea Adventure Tours: Wildlife Tour
With special thanks to everyone we met along the way in Islay for making our trip so special!
Until next time,
Hello from Laurie
Hello, and welcome to my blog. I hope that you find what you're looking for - whether you're planning that perfect holiday or maybe you're from Shetland and looking for some 'home' inspiration. Hopefully, there is something here for everyone.