Islay, Inner Hebrides, Scotland

(Above image captures view from Port Askaig looking towards Jura.)

This evening, I am posting information on the island of Islay which is the southernmost of the Inner Hebridean islands, a chain which lie of Scotland's West Coast.

Information on Islay
  • Etymology: The name may be derived from 'island in two', 'law island' or, possibly, named after a Pictish princess name Ile.
  • Population: 3228 persons.
  • Gaelic speakers: Approximately 25 pct of the population speak Gaelic.
  • Travel to Islay: By ferry from Kennacraig on the Scottish mainland with journey times of between two hours and two hours twenty minutes depending on whether destination port is Port Askaig or Port Ellen. There are also flights from Glasgow.
  • Area: 239 square miles.
  • Principal activities on Islay: Whisky distilling, tourism, farming and fishing.
  • Potential visitor interests: Visiting whisky distilleries, golf, bird watching, historic sites such as Finlaggan and visiting nearby island of Jura.

Whisky Distilleries

Islay is renowned for its eight whisky distilleries with other new distilleries pending) the product of which is (with one exception) noted for its peaty or smoky flavours

Helped by an abundant supply of peat (decayed vegetation which can be used as fuel) and water, Islay produces a range of classic malts from the following distilleries:
  • Ardbeg  (‘Little Height or Promontory’) – Founded 1815, located at Port Ellen and owned by Glenmorangie. Uses a malted barley with a high phenol content and sources peaty water from Loch Uigeadail, about one mile from the distillery.Capacity: 1.3m litres p.a.

  • Bowmore (‘Sea Reef or Sea Rock’) – Founded 1779, located at Bowmore and owned by Suntory of Japan. Sources water from the peaty River Laggan and cuts local peat for its traditional floor maltings. Uses four onion shaped stills for distillation.Capacity: 2.0m litres p.a.

  • Bruichladdich (‘Brae of the Shore’)Founded 1881, located at Bruichladdich and privately owned. Uses spring water with a high peat content.Capacity: 1.5m litres p.a.
Mash Tun at Bruichladdich

  • Bunnahabhain (‘River Mouth’) – Founded 1881, located at Port Askaig and owned by Burns Stewart. Unusually for Islay, this distillery produces an unpeated malt which sources its water from the Margadale Spring. The spirit, which is distilled in four onion shaped stills, is mainly used in blends.Capacity: 2.7m litres p.a.

  • Caol Ila (‘Sound of Islay’) – Founded 1846, located at Port Askaig and owned by major drinks conglomerate, Diageo. Sources water from Loch nam Ban about one mile away and distills using six onion shaped stills. Historically the product has been extensively used in blending.Capacity:6.5m litres p.a.

  • Kilchoman (‘St. Comman’s Church’) – First new distillery on Islay for 124 years, located about five miles west of Bruichladdich, close to Atlantic Ocean. Privately owned. First whisky (three year old) produced 2009. Capacity: 200,000 litres p.a.

  • Lagavulin (‘Mill Hollow’) – A sister distillery to Caol Ila which was founded 1817, located at Port Ellen and owned by drinks conglomerate, Diageo. Sources water high in peat content from a stream flowing from Solan Lochs situated north of the distillery and distills with four, broad necked stills. Capacity: 2.45m litres p.a. 

  • Laphroaig (‘A Cave’) – Founded 1815, located at Port Ellen and owned by Allied Domecq. Malts barley on site with locally cut peat and sources water from the Kilbride dam. This malt is famed for its raw, pungent taste.Capacity: 3.3m litres p.a.
 Stills at Laphroaig
  • Islay Festival of Malt and Music (‘Feis Ile’).Persons interested in whisky could attend the Islay Festival of Malt and Music (‘Feis Ile’) This lasts for one week commencing last weekend of May each year. Booking well ahead is essential.

Other Visitor Sites

  • Bird Watching- Some 110 species of bird breed on Islay and about 50,000 geese overwinter here. There is a visitor centre  at Aoradh Farm.
  • Museum of Islay Life- at Port Charlotte.
  • Loch Finlaggan– A historic site, formerly a power base of the MacDonalds when Lords of the Isles during the medieval period. Located between Port Askaig and Bridgend.There is a visitor centre at the site.
Finlaggan Loch

 Ruins at Finlaggan
  • Kilnave– A chapel associated with the massacre of Maclean clansmen. Located in the NW. tip of Islay.
  • Golf– Machrie Golf Links at Port Ellen
  • Kildalton High Cross – Located about seven miles N.E. of Port Ellen, past Ardbeg distillery. This is a 2.65M high early Christian cross dating from the 8th century.

  • Visit Jura– a very short ferry trip from Port Askaig. Jura means ‘Deer Isle’. This is where George Orwell wrote ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (in 1948). Sites of interest include the ‘Paps of Jura’ (mountains) and Craighouse where is located the Isle of Jura Distillery which dates from 1810 and produces an unpeated malt, closer to the Highland style than that of neighbouring distilleries on Islay.
Jura Landscape

Hints and Tips

Tours of all the distilleries are available but tour times are not synchronized. Allow about two days to visit all the distilleries on Islay. Book ahead during the busy summer period, especially if specialist tours are required. Remember that Scotland is subject to stringent drink-driving laws. Best to arrange for a taxi or private driver for distillery visits. Port Ellen or Port Askaig are good places to stay whilst on Islay with both convenient for ferries.

Port Askaig

 Port Ellen

© Nigel P Cole/Catswhiskerstours Limited


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