Famous for its numerous whisky distilleries, Islay is a beautiful
island with a dozen beaches, several historical sites and not
too many tourists. On a clear day you can see over to Ireland.
Leisure facilities include a swimming pool in Bowmore, tennis
courts in Port Ellen, a golf course at Machrie and diving around
some of the many local wrecks.
By the way, Islay is pronounced 'eye-la' (you don't sound the letter y).
The human population of the island is just over 3000. It is estimated that the island is also home to over 60,000 geese!
How to get to Islay
Image produced from the Ordnance Survey Get-a-map service.
Image reproduced with kind permission of Ordnance Survey and Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland.
There are two ports on Islay: Port Ellen (tel: 01496 302209) in the east and Port Askaig in the north.
Both are served by vehicle ferries from Kennacraig (tel: 01880 730253) which is located on the Kintyre Peninsula (100 miles north of Glasgow) and is served by the CityLink bus service from Glasgow
The official Caledonian Macbrayne web site lists the current ferry timetables and fares. Crossing time is approximately 2 hours. Vehicle reservation is required in advance.
On Wednesdays it is usually also possible to travel between Oban and Port Askaig. A ferry leaves Port Askaig at 10.40am and reaches Oban at 2.55pm. The ship leaves Oban at 3.15pm and returns to Port Askaig at 7.20pm.
The journey is made with a 15 minute stop at Colonsay.
If you are going over on the ferry from Kennacraig to Islay and need a place to stay beforehand,
is a traditional cottage overlooking Tarbert harbour (just 5 miles from the ferry terminal at Kennacraig) between Loch Fyne and the Mull of Kintyre.
Flights are available in light aircraft from Glasgow (35 minutes).
Scheduled flights are operated by British Airways. Charters also possible.
The airstrip is at Glenegedale near Machrie Bay, 4 or 5 miles from Port Ellen. Prince Charles almost crashed his plane here in 1994. For facilities, etc. visit the Islay Airport web site (telephone number: 01496 302022).
Public transport on the island is good. There's a coach and minibus
service run by a local company, plus the post bus operated by
the Royal Mail. Bus Timetables are available online via IslayInfo.
- Islay Car Hire in Bridgend (tel: 01496 810 544).
- D&N Mackenzie are the Volkswagen dealers at Glenegedale, Port Ellen (tel: 01496 302 300 / fax: 01496 302 324).
- Carol's Cabs - tel: 01496 302 155 / Mobile: 07775782155
- Fiona's Taxis - tel: 01496 302622 / Mobile: 0780 8303200
- Lamont Campbell - tel: 01496 810398 / Mobile: 07899 756159
- Stuart Doyle / Rhinns Taxi Service - tel: 01496 850170 or 0 7771 921157.
- Jim Lutomski cycle hire and repairs at Port Ellen - tel: 07760 196592
- Bowmore Post Office - tel: 01496 810 366
- Port Ellen Playing Fields Association - tel: 01496 302349
- Port Charlotte Bike Hire, tel: 01496 850488
- Machrie Golf Course (and Hotel). Located near Port Ellen. Tel: 01496 302310
- Ballivicar Farm Pony Trekking - tel: 01496 302251
- Rockside Pony Trekking Centre - tel: 01496 850231
- The Gearach - forest estate near Port Charlotte offering falconry, deer stalking, shooting, kennels. Tel: 01496 850120.
Tours and Excursions
Islay Birding offer daily birdwatching tours in a Landrover (maximum 6 persons). Full day, half day or dawn/dusk tours available. Binoculars provided if necessary. Tel: 01496 850010 or 0781 791 4429. Web site also includes Islay bird list, photos and regular diary of bird sightings.
Based on Islay, Christine Logan is a private tour guide.
offers private charter, wildlife cruises, bird-watching and whale-watching cruises, dive charter, island cruising and research and survey services. 2 boats based in Oban.
Phone 01680 814260.
Scotland Made Easy can plan a customised itinerary for a self-drive tour to suit your interests, budget and time available. Perhaps you would like to go island hopping? They will book you into recommended accommodation where you are assured of quality, comfort and hospitality - usually in 4 or 5 star B&Bs in Scottish homes. Optional 'specials' include a night in a castle, church, lighthouse, country mansion, etc.
Whether you have already decided which places you want to visit
or if you haven't a clue where to start,
Scotland Made Easy
will advise and take care of all the planning for you.
My travellers' tips file may also be useful if you
are planning a trip to Scotland. It covers airlines, national car hire, train information, maps, etc.
Free tourist map of Islay (downloadable PDF courtesy of The Oban Times).
Events for 2012:
Islay's local newspaper - The Ileach has useful information.
A weather forecast for Islay is provided by Yahoo.
Pebble Beach Near Kildalton - Buy photo at AllPosters.com
What to see
Islay's capital has a variety of shops including: supermarket,
post office, garage, banks, pharmacy, gift shops, hair dressing salon.
In the main square, you will find public toilets and the tourist information centre.
Cycle hire available is available from the Post Office (telephone 01496 810 366).
An excellent craft/book shop called The Celtic House is in Shore Street. The Mactaggart leisure centre (tel 01496 810 767) has a swimming pool, fitness studio and sauna. Next to it, you can take a tour of the Bowmore distillery which
was founded in 1779 and is the oldest on the island.
Look out for the Spirited Soaps shop and their whisky soaps!
It was Daniel Campbell of Shawfield and Islay who founded Bowmore in 1768. With the
streets laid out in a grid pattern, it was the first planned village in Scotland and was part of a
resettlement scheme involving people from the old village of Killarow near Islay House
Bowmore image copyright
Colin Palmer stock photo library (purchase prints and posters online)
The Columba Centre (Ionad Chaluim Chille Ile) is the Gaelic Language and Heritage Centre just outside Bowmore.
The main junction on the island connecting Port Ellen in the south, Port Askaig in the east and Port Charlotte to the west.
Look out for Islay House Square which includes Elizabeth Sykes Batiques, Islay Quilters,
Islay Ales (tastings and guided tours of the micro-brewery),
as well as a textile conservation workshop, stained glass workshop, coffee shop, cards, gifts, etc.
If you take the road from Bridgend towards Port Askaig (see below), you will see the Islay Woollen Mill. The Mill shop is open from Monday to Saturday (tel: 01496 810563).
Heading in the other direction, halfway between Bridgend and Port Charlotte, you can turn off the main road and drive to Kilchoman (ruined church and a large carved cross). You can walk from here to pretty Machir Bay.
Also on the west coast of the 'Rhinns of Islay' you can see the ruins of historic Kilchiaran Chapel near Kilchiaran Bay. You'll need to take a tiny road from Port Charlotte or Portnahaven to get there.
If you are on the Portnahaven to Kilchiaran road, look out for Cultoon Stone Circle on the moorland (near Coultoon Farm) and Tormisdale Croft Crafts (carved shepherds' crooks, hand spun wool, knitwear, etc.).
A picturesque coastal village of whitewashed houses where the
street names are still in Gaelic. It was founded in 1828 by Walter Frederick Campbell who named the village after his mother.
Opposite the museum is the Croft Kitchen - a tea room and souvenir shop (open April - October, tel: 01496 850230). In the village is a post office/grocery shop and a public telephone.
The new Port Mor Centre includes a cafe, toilets, showers, laundry, Internet access, meeting rooms and a large children's playground. There is also a campsite for tents and camper vans.
Tel: 01496 850441.
The Youth hostel here is combined with the
Islay Natural History Trust field centre which contains
a nature library, laboratory, lecture room and exhibitions, housed
in the old warehouses of Lochindaal distillery which closed in the 1920s.
Tickets are valid for a week, so you can go in as many times as you like to consult documents
or ask the staff about any wildlife you may have seen. Tel: 01496 850288.
The Port Charlotte Museum of Islay Life is worth a visit if you are
interested in the history of the island.
Open daily from Easter to October (afternoons only on Sundays and by appointment at other
times of the year). Tel: 01496 850358 (Margot Perrons, Chairperson / Hon. Curator).
Housed in what used to be the Free Church of Port Charlotte, it
contains an extensive library of papers and documents relating
to Islay. This museum opened in 1977 and has won several awards.
Displays include an illicit still, a farm's medicine
box, photos of farming and fishing in years gone by, a selection
of toys and exhibits showing life on a croft in the 19th century
with numerous old farming implements, tools and kitchen utensils.
Also on view are the clockworks from the Rhinns lighthouse.
A section is devoted to all the shipwrecks there have been around
the island's coast. It mentions the American Memorial, a lighthouse-shaped
monument to the 266 servicemen who drowned here in 1918. One troop
ship was sunk by a U-boat and a second went down after a collision
off the west coast of the Rhinns. The memorial is located on the
Oa peninsula (see below).
NERABUS - 2 miles south of Port Charlotte
Situated on the east side of the Rhinns in the parish of Kilchoman.
Today there are just a few farmhouses at Nerabus. In 1850 there
were 14 dwellings and a chapel thought to have been dedicated
to St. Columba. In the old cemetery ancient carved gravestones dating
from the 14th and 15th centuries were recently discovered under a row of turnips. Also by the sea,
sit the ruins of an old mill.
PORTNAHAVEN - 5 miles south of Nerabus
A picturesque little village with white cottages sitting around
the harbour and a tiny stretch of beach. The ideal spot for seeing
seals. There's a general store and Post Office here. Bus terminus.
An Tigh Seinnse pub serves good food.
A few hundred metres offshore, a couple of low-lying islands form
a natural harbour wall. Orsay is the larger of the two. On its
grassy top, the ruins of a chapel are dwarfed by the Rinns lighthouse built in 1825 to a design by Robert Stevenson.
In the museum at Port Charlotte I believe there is an early Christian carved stone dating from the 6-8th century which was found here.
To the left of the harbour, behind the houses, a road runs around
to Port Wemyss. Directly overlooked by Orsay, it appears to be more like an extension of Portnahaven, a sort of little sister.
In fact both were planned 19th century villages.
Robert Pollock has produced an excellent guide covering
the stone circle 6km north of Portnahaven.
This is a small ferry port on the eastern side of the island with a few shops, a restaurant and a cafe. Bowling, tennis, putting also available.
Mactaggart Community Cybercafe (closed Sundays) and The Corner Kitchen (open 7 days a week) can be found at 30 Mansefield Place.
It was founded in 1821 by Walter F. Campbell who originally named it after his wife as Port Ellinor or Eleanor. Later this was shortened to Port Ellen.
Tighcargaman (which used to be a pottery and B&B) now offers self catering cottages to rent.
There are regular Arts & Crafts markets
in Port Ellen at the Columba Hall in Frederick Crescent. Usually on Thursdays from early May to early October. Also some Saturdays in November & December. On Tuesdays during the summer, the market is also at Bruichladdich Hall. Check their web site for details or phone 01496 850146.
The Laphroaig Distillery near Port Ellen offers tours Mondays to Fridays (booked required - tel 01496 302418). Usually closed for maintenance in July and August.
Other attractions nearby include the ruins of Dunyvaig Castle which are situated in Lagavulin Bay, not far from Lagavulin Distillery.
Emergency repairs were carried out in 1998 by the castle's owners (United Distillers) with a grant from Historic Scotland.
Care should be taken when visiting.
Once a stonghold and naval base of the MacDonald Lords of the Isles, the castle had a turbulent history - belonging at various times to the MacIans of Ardnamurchan, MacDonalds and Campbells.
Robert Pollock has produced an excellent guide with diagrams covering
the standing stone just outside Port Ellen and another one close to the town at
If you take the road out of Port Ellen towards the Mull of Oa, look out for a left turn to Kilnaughton beach and from there you can walk on a signposted track to the 'Singing Sands' and Carraig Fhada lighthouse.
THE OA (the 'a' is silent)
This peninsula to the south of Port Ellen is a peaceful escape with sandy beaches, a solar-powered lighthouse, deserted villages and an Iron Age hill fort.
The Mull of Oa is home to the American Memorial (see description above in the Port Charlotte museum section).
Big Strand (7 miles long) is the longest stretch of sand on Islay.
Upper Killeyan is the new RSPB bird reserve set up to encourage the rare chough.
For more info visit IslayInfo.
Why not stay here at Coillabus Cottage which is available for self-catering holidays. Ideal for families as it sleeps up to 6.
KILDALTON CHAPEL AND HIGH CROSS
Located 7 miles north of Port Ellen, the chapel has one of the
best examples of an early Christian cross in Britain (dating from the late 8th century).
This small village on the northern side of the island is where
you catch the ferries to Jura and the mainland. There's not much here except the hotel, lifeboat station and a post office in the
general store where you can also buy petrol.
Boat trips are operated between April and November by Islay Marine (tel: 01496 850436).
Just outside Port Askaig (near the road to Bunnahabhain distillery) is a farm which is home to Persabus Pottery (tel: 01496 840243).
Located a few miles south of Port Askaig. Archaeological dig around what was the ancient seat of the Lord of
the Isles in the 14th and 15th centuries. There are 2 islands on this site - Eilean Mor (Big Isle) and Eilean na Comhairle (Council Isle).
On the so-called Big Isle there are two main ruins (a chapel dedicated to Saint Finlaggan and
a service building), plus the remains of over 20 buildings one of which was a great hall.
Carved gravestones were found near the chapel.
The new visitors' Information Centre is open during the summer months. Tel: 01496 850273. Visit The Finlaggan Trust web site for more details. Their web site also includes the Islay Cultural Database.
Robert Pollock has produced an excellent guide with diagrams covering a
standing stone at Finlaggan near the Visitors' Centre.
Ten crannogs (ancient loch dwellings) have been
surveyed by Mark Holley.
ROYAL SOCIETY FOR THE PROTECTION OF BIRDS RESERVE (at Gruinart)
The Gruinart Reserve occupies most of the north-west quadrant of the island and
has a Visitors' Centre situated in the middle of a farmyard. Several
of the barns have been converted to house video cameras which
you can operate by remote control from the first floor of the
Centre. It also had some high-power binoculars and a register
of all the birds seen by visitors. Further down the road is a
wooden hide overlooking the tidal Loch Gruinart. Tel: 01496 850505.
Islay is particularly famous for the large numbers of geese that
come here. You are also likely to see oyster-catchers around Islay's
coastline. They are black and white, with long orange beaks and
make a lot of noise.
DAY EXCURSION TO THE ISLAND OF COLONSAY
Colonsay is a beautiful little island with many sandy beaches.
It's well worth a trip from Islay if you have a day to spare.
On Wednesdays during the summmer, it was possible to spend 6 hours on
Colonsay by taking advantage of the ferry times. A ship leaves Port Askaig at 0940 and reaches Colonsay at 1050. It goes on to Oban and then returns to pick people up at 1650
when it takes you back to Port Askaig for 1825. I believe that minibus tours of Colonsay can be arranged for about 3 pounds if you buy a ticket at Kennacraig, Oban or Port Askaig.
The journey over there on the Cal Mac ferry is quite interesting.
When I went I'm sure I saw an otter and what I think were porpoises
or possibly dolphins. So keep your eyes on the sea's surface.
If you want to stay on the island (you have to plan your time
around the ferry schedules), full information is provided on the official
Colonsay web site.
DAY EXCURSION TO THE ISLAND OF JURA
Jura is a wild, scarcely-populated island. George Orwell wrote his novel 1984 here.
You can take the 5-minute ferry from Port Askaig.
For information on Jura, click here.
ISLAY'S WHISKY DISTILLERIES
- Ardbeg (Port Ellen) - telephone 01496 30 22 44.
Established in 1815, bought by Glenmorangie in 1997.
Tours, Visitor Centre and Old Kiln Cafe. Open Monday - Friday all year (plus weekends June to August).
Pre-booking advisable for tours (maximum 10 per group).
Bowmore Distillery - telephone 01496 810 671. The oldest distillery on Islay. Tours given all year round Monday-Friday. Saturday morning tours summer only. Facilities for disabled. Gift Shop.
- Bruichladdich Distillery is on the road to Port Charlotte. Closed in 1993 but reopened in May 2001. Guided tours Monday - Saturday all year round (booking required). Tel: 01496 850 190
Shop open Monday - Saturday. Web cams.
- Bunnahabhain Distillery (north of Port Askaig) - telephone 01496 840646. Gift shop. Tours available Monday to Friday from March to October. October - December by appointment only.
- Caol Ila Distillery (Port Askaig) - telephone 01496 302760. Guided tours available Monday to Friday April & October (prior booking required). Gift Shop.
- Kilchoman Distillery - the first to be built on Islay since 1881. Tel: 01496 850011. Tours, Visitor Centre and Cafe. Monday to Saturday May, June & September. Open daily in July & August. Monday to Friday October - December
- Lagavulin Distillery (near Port Ellen) - telephone 01496 302730. Guided tours Monday to Friday (prior booking required). Open all year.
- Laphroaig Distillery (near Port Ellen) - telephone 01496 302418. Open all year. Guided tours by appointment only. Visitor Centre open Monday to Friday.
Annual shutdown for maintenance: July and August.
The Islay Distillery Watch is a downloadable leaflet with all the tour times, contact details, etc.
Other information can be found via the Islay Whisky Society.
Kathleen Cameron, professional tour guide, can offer private tours taking small parties to Islay's distilleries - click here for details.
Islay Ales is the only brewery on Islay and produces hand-crafted real ale.