‘Tell me o’ lands of the Orient gay
Speak o’the riches and joys o’Cathay
Aye but it’s grand to be wakin’ each day
And find yourself nearer to Islay.’
I agree completely with those lyrics from ‘Westering Home’ – I fall in love with Islay (pron Aye La) a little more each visit! Most recently in July 2021, with 4 days on the island with my oldest son, it was great fun introducing him to some favourite corners. But it was a two way process, because Alasdair’s own interest in whisky also led me to discover, for the first time, 6 of Islay’s 9 world famous whisky distilleries for which this emerald green, low lying island is so famous. And they are a wow! A visit to at least one should be on any itinerary to this gentle, wildflower strewn little bit of heaven in the Atlantic. Washed by pounding surf, next stop Canada, Islay is a joy, softer than many of the other Hebrides, with low hills and moorland, some gorgeous beaches, nice whitewashed villages tumbling down to the sea, flower filled hedgerows and turquoise seas. Like so many of the islands, it’s a very difficult place to leave.
Ignore Google suggestions that the drive from Glasgow takes 2.5 hrs.You’d have to be very lucky or Louis Hamilton to manage that time. The road suffers from several real bottle necks at rush hour (leaving Glasgow and getting onto the Erskine Bridge) and on Fridays and weekends. However, once at Loch Lomond, a brilliantly scenic drive is in store, including a whizz over the spectacular Rest and Be Thankful hill pass which has a tendency to close if there’s been heavy rain (not exactly unusual in Scotland!)
Our journey on a Saturday lunchtime (never, EVER again will I leave at this time in summer) took us almost 3.5 hrs. Not a real issue as we were getting the ferry on Sunday morning but if we’d been trying to catch a late afternoon ferry, I would have been a gibbering wreck. Alasdair said later, that if he’d been on his own, sitting in that queue for the Erskine Bridge, he would have about turned and headed home. Just as well I didn’t know how close we’d come to not getting to Islay at all.
A NIGHT IN TARBERT, LOCH FYNE
As it was, we had a nice relaxing evening to enjoy in pretty Tarbert, a 10 min drive from Kennacraig where 3 ferries daily leave for Islay.
Once checked into our accommodation in the inexpensive Starfish Rooms (simple, clean but a bit noisy) it was time for a stroll along the quayside, a quick look at the ruined castle with great views over the bay and an excellent, traditional Italian ice cream cone with dayglo raspberry sauce from Café Ca’ Doro. Honestly, to me a good cafe ice cream knocks Haagen Daz for six!
Later, we had dinner in the attractive wee Anchorage Restaurant, nice food – big juicy scallops, fish and chips (slightly small portion I thought) and huge rib eye steak).Just to make sure we didn’t starve, we headed next morning for rolls and bacon and sausage in the Ca’ Doro again, which handily opens at 8am for breakfast. That was us all set up for the 9.45am ferry on Sunday!
Our 2hr 10 min sail from Kennacriag was on a calm sea, under a warm sun and the Paps of Jura (3 in all despite the name) looked terrific across a mirror like sea. Two porpoises broke the surface, dazzling white gannets dived for fish and fulmars flew low over the water, on the hunt. Of all the truly magnificent journeys I enjoy in Scotland, very few beat sailing out on a Calmac ferry to one of the many Hebridean islands, shell- sand fringed jewels off our west coast.
Port Ellen is a lovely wee place to arrive at on a sunny day, with its whitewashed traditional old houses set round the bay, two white sand beaches and a sleepy feel to the place even in mid summer. We stopped to pick up some supplies in the Co-op, then drove the 10 mins or so to our accommodation for the next 3 nights – a beautiful house in a stunning location high above the bay called ‘Heathery Brae.’
After meeting our very friendly host, Fiona and a tour of the house and its gadgets, to make sure we didn’t accidently blow it up/burn it down/flood it out over the next few days, it was time for a quick sandwich lunch before our first Distillery visit. A quick drive back to the village, the car parked on the main street and we were ready to set off on the 4 mile or so return walk to two of the island’s most famous – Laphroaig and Lagavullin. The trail goes out to Ardbeg Distillery too, but it was closed on Sundays, so we visited that on another day with the car.
THE WHISKY DISTILLERIES
Of the 8 distilleries we saw this trip (Caol Ila was shut in July this year, as was the road to it) my favourites were Ardbeg, Ardnahoe and Bunnahabhain. Laphroaig was up there too. These were just so beautiful – pristine – and in such lovely locations, that I was really bowled over by them. A change to be blown away by distilleries rather than the more usual Hebridean gales!
The walk to Laphroaig and Lagavullin passes some nice little rocky bays and the path edges were lined with meadowsweet and buttercups, purple vetch and cow parsley, red and white clover and montbretia. The air in the Hebrides is sweetly fragrant with wildflowers from early summer on, a real joy of being on the islands.
These two famous whiskies are the most ‘medicinal’ tasting of all – an acquired taste some might say with a distinctive antiseptic aroma – they are VERY peaty and smoky. I’ve tried Laphroaig in the past (cask strength 60%) and like most of these super strong whiskies, it was like swallowing fire. Even the fumes from the bottle had me spluttering – but I’m a wimp when it comes to alcohol.
Half an hour after leaving Port Ellen, we turned down a woodland path and arrived at Laphroaig (pron La Froyg) , its 200 year old building painted a dazzling white and the shop entrance edged with wooden casks filled with geraniums and petunias. It looked gorgeous! The distilleries are mostly all situated right on the sea as this was how the whisky would have been transported out in olden times – no good roads in those days!
We had 10 mins to wait until we could enter the shop (tours weren’t running plus my son had done 3 tours already of other distilleries and if you’ve done one…). Beautiful shop, with some unusual whiskies on display as well as some eye wateringly expensive 25 year olds at 1,000 quid! There were even some at £6,000 but Alasdair bought one he had his eye on at the more modest price of £58 – cask strength 60%. Always one to spend big, I bought Alasdair a slate coaster with the distillery name on it for £6. To my surprise, I was then given a freebie of two Laphroaig 10 year old miniatures and matching taster glasses. Wow, nice. Alasdair was a bit miffed initially when he took his whisky to the counter and there was no similar freebie but every household/group that bought anything, were given this as a ‘thank you for buying’; of the two of us, I just happened to make my (tiny) purchase first. The freebie was for both of us!
Another VERY brisk 20 min walk (my son walks VERY fast, my hips took days to recover) took us to Lagavullin with fine views to ruined Dunyveg Castle. It didn’t quite hit the spot like Laphroaig though.
Ardbeg we visited by car next day – wow, this was such a beautiful place, with its own tiny wee jetty lapped by the sea, flowers everywhere, a great shop and a not bad at all takeaway café . I devoured their tasty Rhubard Trifle (£3.50) while Alasdair had a clotted cream scone. He bought another cask strength whisky called The Oa which now graces the shelves of his Edinburgh flat.
If you only feel like walking one way to these distilleries, there is, mid week, a bus service to whisk you back from the distilleries to Port Ellen but on Sunday , it was Shank’s Pony for us each way. No hardship on a nice warm day and a chance to get into – literally too – the spirit of Islay.
Situated in a beautiful area which feels quite remote, this is a newer distillery in a stone building and surrounded by its own fields of barley. (Most distilleries import barley these days.)Unfortunately, a Covid outbreak had led to its temporary closure so it was closed when we arrived. I always forget to check he Facebook pages of places, which they seem to update quicker than their websites. Lovely looking place though.
We drove on along a pot-holed track and after a half mile of my heart being in my mouth in case a boulder punctured the sump of my son’s small sporty, low slung wee car, we reached gorgeous, surf pounded Kilchoman beach and one of my favourite Islay walks. We didn’t have time to do the whole walk as we had lunch booked at The Machrie Golf Hotel but managed to stride out to just beyond the end of the beach before heading back. Food is never far off the agenda!
A stunner, no other word for it given its location on the ultra remote and wildly scenic east coast of Islay with views over the sea to the Paps of Jura. I really couldn’t get enough of this place which sits above a pristine pebbly beach. Lonely country all around. Magnificent!
Very new but also in a grand location near Bunnahabhain . It’s a priority for a longer visit next time; I really fancy its café with those huge panoramic windows looking over the Sound of Islay. Just a terrific looking place.
Of course, which distillery anyone visits is also down to personal preference re whisky – from Laphroaig to the softer Bunnahabhain or Kilchoman whiskies. Mind you, my son says he hasn’t tasted a bad whisky yet and Chris agrees that they don’t exist! For me…it has to be at least an 18 year old before I can drink whisky, which means I rarely have it as this level of aging /smoothness comes with a hefty price tag. That said, I love the aroma of whisky – it’s a cliché I know, but it really is Scotland in a Glass. If I was far away from the Auld Country and homesick, the scent of whisky would have as powerful an effect as the skirl of bagpipes.
But even for non whisky fans and especially if you love great views and historic buildings, at least one of these world class visitor attractions should be on any Islay itinerary.
Islay has some crackers – the long strand beyond The Machrie Golf course is wonderful.
…as is more surfy Kilchoman. The latter is popular with families and the tiny parking area there fills up quickly. The walk up to the radio transmitters (See Walks) on the small hill at the far (southern) end of the beach is easy, on an obvious path and a great place for a picnic.
I also love Sanaigmore beach, about a 20 min drive from Kilchoman.Easier parking, popular too, a couple of smaller coves, very Hebridean and with lagoon like swimming.
Lossit Bay you may have all to yourself as it’s a bit of a drive, with one minor bumpy section, beyond pretty Portnahaven (which itself has an end of the road feel to it) Parking isn’t signposted and it’s a 10-15 min walk from the turn off to Octofad Farm. Park on whichever bit of grass looks free and doesn’t block the single track road or gate access to the farm road.
The easy walk to the beach (usually past cattle, incuding a very impressive bull when we were last there; I kept my eye on it until we disappeared out of its sight) leads down to surf pounded, almost amber coloured sand (in some light) – just fabulous. On a stormy day, the wild location really impresses in a different way. I first saw Lossit on such a day of scudding clouds and a semi gale and loved it. Chris and I had a picnic there last year on a sunny warm day and it felt like paradise.
Ardnave is so lovely too , especially at low tide. There’s a nice circular walk to be done round this peninsula too. (See Walks)
THE MULL OF OA
Pronounced ‘O’ this is a fantastic as well as a deeply moving place, site of the American Memorial, which is seen from all over the island. It’s a 15-20min single track drive from Port Ellen (with a final few minutes of broken track with plenty of pot holes bigger than moon craters, rivalling the bumpy last section to Kilchoman beach) and a relief to reach the small parking area. There is information about the background of the impressive memorial, built to resemble a lighthouse.
We walked down the single track road then turned right for the quickest route to the cliff top memorial – with more time, it’s even better to head left and do the circular loop, taking in more of the dramatic cliffs of the Oa. If up to it, a 4 hour or so return walk also takes in Beinn Mhor, the small hill way off to the east (See Walks)
Late afternoon , we walked up to the Memorial with larks singing their hearts out above us and the wildflowers lining the path were at hip height – meadowsweet and montbretia in particular. It was absolutely stunning and the air was sweet with fragrance.
The path is good, with duck boarding across boggy moorland sections and if walking briskly, as we were, the walk only takes 15 mins or so.
The Monument honours the dead of 2 troopships in 1918 which went down off Islay with the loss of over 600 lives. Many are buried in the beautiful, deeply moving Military Cemetery near Kilchoman, which Chris and I visited last summer; the bodies of others were repatriated to the USA.
From the cliff top, Northern Ireland and the Antrim Coast are visible. It’s a magnificent spot, perhaps equally so in a different way on a storm-tossed day when the seas below are crashing and wild.
Peregrines nest here too – I’ve seen them twice – and golden eagles nest closer to Beinn Mhor. In summer, Beinn Mhor is a sea of purple and pink heather, glorious. There is a wild goat herd here too, looking almost prehistoric with truly gigantic horns.
These are all favourites.
Lovely 2 hour or so stroll, flat mostly, exploring the remote peninsula.The unearthly singing of Atlantic Grey seals continued all night (we have wild camped here a couple of times.) Beautiful views on a sunny day to Killinallan and Jura.
Carrick Lighthouse and the Singing Sands
A short, pretty walk which ends at a very attractive shell sand beach.
An explore of an hour or so, of the two attractive villages at the very tip of the Rhinns of Islay(as that area is called.)
Turnaichaidh Hill (see Kilchoman Beach walk above)
A bit of a slog, trackless the way we did it, but great views over Kilchoman and heather galore at the top in August.
Beinn Mhor and the Mull of Oa/American Monument
This is quite a tough hike if you go right out to Beinn Mhor itself.All sorts of shorter options are available as time and energy allows.
I’ve not done this yet – it’s a priority next visit – looks great.The area can be seen across Loch Gruinart from Ardnave.
It’s the coastal, whitewashed villages which are also a big attraction for me on Islay.
Port Ellen has smartened itself up a lot in recent years and is a very pleasant wee place, with a couple of white sand beaches though these don’t compare to others on the island.Only a few shops – a Co-op with long opening hours, a small 4 star hotel , a bistro, the ferry terminal itself of course and on the outskirts the rather ugly Port Ellen distillery.
Kilnaughton beach is lovely and a 5 min drive away.
I really like Bowmore too, which has a main street which sweeps down to the sea (Loch Indaal.)
At the top end sits the famous Round Church (built that way, they say, so that there are no corners for the Devil to hide in.)
Some nice wee shops – including The Islay Whisky Shop, the Celtic House café with its excellent bookshop; and of course a good old Co-op. There are several eating places, including Peatzaria, the Bowmore Hotel and the nice wee Harbour Inn(which we tried to eat in but it was solidly booked the whole time we were there) as well as an Indian restaurant in case of curry withdrawal symptoms.
Bowmore Distillery sits off the main street, looking very pristine though a bit squashed into its space.
Port Charlotte is often hailed as the prettiest village with pristine whitewashed old houses, very smartly kept, fringing the rocky shore. There’s a small beach and a very attractive hotel of the same name which serves nice food, especially sea food. Seafood is excellent on Islay as you would expect.
Alasdair and I had dinner one night at the hotel, Chris and I had dined here too last year and really enjoyed their Posh Fish and Chips (battered haddock, salmon, sea bass) and good chips; I had Islay venison this time, good but quite gamey, definitely Red Deer rather than Roe Deer which is milder. Alasdair’s had Chicken stuffed with Haggis but the best dish was dessert – the home made Sticky Toffee Pudding was fabulous!
We have always dined in their downstairs conservatory but the bar to me, looks more atmospheric though few tables have a view of the sea. The outdoor terrace on a sunny day is one of the loveliest places for coffee or a drink on Islay – lined with geraniums and other flowers with views across the shallow turquoise sea to the Paps of Jura. Shore side tables are like gold dust in peak season – I’ve never nabbed one yet.
Portnahaven/Port Wemyss – there is a great wee walk (outlined above) to be done round these two picturesque old villages on a rocky coastline. Very characterful places and well worth an explore.
Not really a village as such but it’s a pretty spot with great views over to the Paps of Jura.
There is very little here except the hotel, a small shop and harbour where the little ferry plies over to wild Jura. I had one of the best whiskies I’ve ever tasted in the hotel…an 18 year old Caol Ila, which was on special offer at £4 a glass, a LONG time ago (which you can tell by the price!) The hotel goes like a fair at weekends but was ultra quiet if not moribund when my son and I had dinner on our last night. We were the only diners; the menu looked a bit 1970s but the lasagne was tasty enough and Alasdair’s fish and chips were good. There’s a lovely garden for sitting out having a drink – the location is the thing.
The Machrie course would be championship standard if it weren’t for the number of blind shots/holes. It’s a cracker of a course in a superb location, enhanced now by a 5 star hotel which is a beautifully stylish inside. Lunch there is surprisingly good value and sitting on a sunny day on the upper balcony with views over the course and the sea, is just sublime.It’s certainly the best Club Sandwich I’ve ever tasted, made with fried egg and piled high with chicken and bacon plus it’s served with chips.
Alasdair had their roast beef sandwich which must have had half a pound of meat in it. A real treat of a place to be in, especially the first floor balcony on a sunny day with views over the course to the sea.
Islay is a haven for birds. The RSPB reserve at Loch Gruinart has a hide. Geese over-winter on Islay – Greylag, Barnacle and Canada geese in particular. Sea eagles are on Islay as are Golden Eagles, Hen Harriers, Peregrines and other raptors such as Merlin. Red deer are plentiful and of course, seabirds and waders, gannets, guillemots, curlew, bar tailed godwits, divers, warblers, larks and other songbirds…to name a few. Choughs are a rarity in the UK but are commonly seen on Islay. Otters breed at the coast, though I have only seen one, once, out at Ardnave. I have never heard Atlantic Grey seals singing so constantly and so close to shore as they do off Ardnave. Eerie at night and very haunting.
Porpoises, dolphins, Minke and other whales are to be seen too – the ferry crossing can be good for the first two.
The Kildalton Cross
The 8th century, 2.6m high Kildalton Cross is one of the finest carved Celtic crosses in Scotland and still stands where it was first erected. It is in Kildalton cemetery in a quiet, beautiful spot on the east coast. Signposted, about 8 miles beyond Ardbeg. It’s carved from a bluish stone which resists lichen growth. It is in remarkable condition! Information at the site describes the still visible carvings including Cain killing Abel and the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham.
There are fine, carved warrior grave slabs too.
I am always so moved by a tiny gravestone, at the entrance, marking the grave of ‘wee Ewing Crawford’, who died at 3 years of age. Very sad and salutary to think of how short a span on this beautiful Earth this little boy had.
Alasdair and I visited Kildalton on a sunny day, a place of great peacefulness, shaded by trees. Beautiful.
Once the seat of the Lords of the Isles, there is little left of this once impressive homeland of the rulers of Islay and beyond. It did once include buildings across two islands on a freshwater loch and was in use for 150 years.
The American Monument – as described earlier.
Kilchoman Church and Kilnave Chapel
My favourite ruins – Kilchoman Church has some wonderful ancient carved stones and grave slabs. Nearby is the deeply moving Military Cemetery. Kilnave Chapel near Ardnave is in the loveliest location, on its own, looking over the sea. It’s a stunning place for quiet contemplation when the sun goes down.
Dunyvaig Castle ruins
In a dramatic location near Lagavullin distillery, parts of the ruins date from the 13th century.
There are various standing stones but perhaps most impressive is at Ballinaby – almost 5 metres high and dating from 3-4,000 years ago.
A Day Trip to Jura (photos to come)
Well worth it! Beautiful island, very wild though surprisingly softer on the east coast. Chris and I , many moons ago, spent two nights wild camping on the uninhabited west coast (after a 5 mile hike from the ferry) and climbed the highest Pap – Beinn an Oir. Tough underfoot but stunning. An otter hunted off the beach we camped beside. Never saw a soul for all the time we were there – most of this large island is uninhabited and there are more deer than people. In fact, Jura means Deer Island – well named!
We once took the car over from Islay and drove beyond Lealt (end of the road) where my great idea was that we would then head on foot across the moorland to remote Glengarrisdale Bay – an 11 mile round trip. The ground was unbelievably boggy, the worst ever (and we are both used to bog!) So to get off it, we made the mistake of thinking that we could make our own route by keeping to a range of low hills instead – wrong! I’ve never walked in such ankle breaking, tough, dispiriting terrain. More than 2 sweaty hours later, the air behind us still filled with curses, we finally reached the bay, on a broiler of a day, with its characterful old Bothy and great views to Scarba. It was a nice spot, not a soul around, but I wouldn’t say ‘wow.’ There was a rope hanging from a tree with a noose and Chris took a photo of me with it round my neck. Yes, another great idea of mine had turned out to be utterly exhausting – I’m forgiven if it’s worth the effort, but this time….ah well we laugh about it now and actually, I’m really glad to have seen that part of Jura. The Bothy was a cracker , with a really interesting log book; a lot of yachts seemed to come in (now THAT’S how to reach Glengarrisdale) and those on board had written up their thoughts in the book, or just added their names for history’s sake; we did that too and I’m quite proud now that our names are in that very wild place.
We had coffee in Craighouse, the nice main village (tiny) with the whisky distillery close by.
A great boat trip – done either from Islay or Jura or the mainland , various operators – is to see the world’s largest whirlpool which rages furiously between the north end of Jura and Scarba. Called The Corrievreckan, it’s an astonishing and scary bit of water which also creates a standing 10 foot wave. Classified as unnavigable in the charts, our little boat’s engine laboured for an alarming period of time as the skipper tried to pull away from the whirlpool – thankfully we made it. We then anchored off Jura’s rugged north coast, a fabulous spot, for tea and shortbread. A final flurry saw us sail past a Sea Eagle’s nest before heading back to Craignish on the Argyll coast. A trip I want to do again soon, magical.
George Orwell lived for some years at Barnhill, a very remote house beyond the end of the road at the island’s north end. He wrote ‘1984 ‘ there and also nearly drowned trying to sail through the Corrievreckan – halfway through writing the book! It nearly never was…