Islay is the southern-most island of the Inner Hebrides and is often referred to as Queen of the Hebrides. With an area of 239 sq miles Islay is the second largest island of the Southern Hebrides, Mull is the largest island. There are around 3300 people living on the island and most of them live in Bowmore, the administrative capital, and Port Ellen. Like other islands in the Southern Hebrides the Gaelic language is still well represented and around 50% of the people on Islay speak it. Islay’s main industries are farming, fishing, tourism and the Islay whisky industry which, together with its magnificent wildlife, attracts many visitors to the island.
Christianity came to Islay after 500AD, leaving its mark in some remarkable carved stone crosses such as the ones at Kilnave and Kildalton. Kildalton Cross is built in the Iona tradition with Pictish, Irish, Northumbrian and Celtic motifs. The cross is 2.7 metres tall and can be dated back as far as 800AD. Around 900AD the vikings had arrived in the west of Scotland, first as raiders but later as traders and settlers. Of probable mixed Gaelic-Norse ancestry, Somerled established himself as ruler. His son Ranald took his place, naming himself as King of the Isles and Lord of Argyll. In turn, his son Donald, founder of the Clan Donald, inherited the kingdom of Islay.
The Lord of the Isles
Following defeat in battles against the Scots, the rule of the isles was ceded to the Scottish crown under the Treaty of Perth, signed in 1266. It was not until the MacDonalds under Angus Og, a decendant of Somerled, supported Robert Bruce in the Scottish Wars of Independence, that their fortunes were to rise again. The power base of the lordship was centred at Finlaggan on Islay. The lordship was ended in 1493 when the last lord, John II was found to have acted treasonably in treating with the English king against King James III of Scotland. The downfall of the MacDonalds provided opportunities for the rise of the Cawdor Campbells and Islay gradually came under Mainland Scottish influence. The Cawdor Campbells were later forced to sell their estates to the Shawfield Campbells who brought improvements and the fortunes of the island began to revive.
Port Charlotte on the Rhinns of Islay
Islay’s main features are its nine excellent single malt whiskies and white washed distilleries which can be found in the most beautiful settings. It’s often said that the introduction of whisky in Scotland started on Islay, which was used as a stepping stone for Scotland. Irish monks introduced the art of whisky distillation to Islay in the 14th century. It was Islay that had unlimited supplies of peat and rivers filled with pure water. The first official distillery on the island was in Bowmore which received its license in 1779. Nowadays nine distilleries are almost running full time on the island and their names are well known throughout the world. Islay’s whiskies are renowned for their smoke and peat and other excellent qualities. The southern distilleries of Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig produce very strong peaty flavoured whiskies while the other distilleries on the north of the island, Bowmore, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Bruichladdich and Kilchoman are less peaty.
A Birdwatchers Paradise
Birdwatching is another popular activity for many visitors. Islay boasts a wide variety of wonderful scenery and habitats, including wild open moorland, salt marshes, mud flats, mountains, unspoilt beaches and cliffs and mixed woodland. All these habitats offer amazing birding, over one hundred species being present on the island all year round such as Sea Eagles and migrating whooper swans. In the autumn thousands of Geese migrate from Greenland and arrive by the thousands at Loch Gruinart, one of three RSPB nature reserves on the island. This spectacle attracts many visitors to the island in the wintertime.
See and Do on Islay
Besides birdwatching Islay offers many other activities for tourists such as golfing, fishing and stalking on the estates, cycling and walking. Port Charlotte is home to the rewarded Museum of Islay Life which gives a good overview of Islay’s rich history. There are a good number of restaurants and pubs on the island, most of them in the local hotels. Accommodation can be found almost anywhere on the island and includes a youth hostel in Port Charlotte and two campsites. The island has several craft shops and a craft market which is held twice a week in the summer season in Port Ellen and Bruichladdich.
Travel to Islay
Islay has an airport with daily flights from Glasgow. The ferry terminals are at Port Ellen and Port Askaig and Calmac ferries run several times a day to and from Kennacraig on the Scottish mainland. The local council operates a bus service on the island. The majority of the roads on the island are single-track with two main roads connecting the larger villages.
Islay Community & Local Websites. Tourist Information:
Islay Pictures – A gallery with Islay Images
islay.scot – Photo Guide to the Isle of Islay
www.islayinfo.com – Islay Info Visitors Guide to Islay
www.visitscottishheartlands.com – Tourist Information for Argyll