Islay (Gaelic Ìle, say "eye-la") is an island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, with a population of 3,228 in 2011. It's mostly low-lying grazing land and heath, with Port Ellen and Bowmore the main settlements. Islay is exposed to the Atlantic, with a mild climate and strong breezes, which keep the midges in check, but in winter fierce gales and storms are common, with disruption of transport. You have to travel via Islay to reach the nearby Isle of Jura.
A quarter of the population speak Gaelic, but many placenames are Norse - including "Islay" itself, though no-one knows what that means. The island is famous for its collection of big name whisky distilleries, nine at the latest count, and usually all can be toured.
Islay followed the standard Highland history of clan feuds and hand-to-mouth farming, then a rapid shift to modern cash farming, with the population evicted in "the Highland Clearances". One difference here was that many were relocated upon the island, in planned settlements such as Bowmore and with visions of an industrial Hebridean future. Fishing and knitwear were fostered, but whisky and tourism came about almost by accident.
Medieval spirits were small-scale poitín or rough gin. Gentlemen preferred continental brandy, but wars with France and high taxation curbed imports, and encouraged Scotch whisky distilling in the 18th and 19th centuries. This especially flourished on Islay, fertile enough to grow its own barley, and with fresh water sources (peaty or unpeaty as desired) and salt-sprayed terrain conducive to strong flavours. It also had sheltered harbours, so small ships could easily bring materials in and carry the whisky out, duty free if it was for export. More went "for export" than ever left the country, as barrels were run ashore on secluded mainland beaches to enter the black market.
Distilleries have come and gone but there are nine in production on Islay as of 2022. (A tenth may start in 2023, implying sales from 2026.) Much output is blended into popular commercial brands but the product of malted barley from a single distillery is called "single malt whisky", has a distinctive flavour, and carries a price premium. All the Islay distilleries sell single malts, offer tours, and have shops or visitor centres. Most are part of international corporations such as Diageo, but two are independent, helped by a change in the law in 2009. It's illegal to distil your own spirits (of any kind) for personal consumption, but you're permitted under licence to set up a commercial distillery. That was held to mean a still of at least 1800 litres capacity, but in 2009 a legal case overthrew that minimum, and opened the door to micro-distilleries, which then popped up all over the UK but particularly in Scotland. Most of these make gin, but that market was quickly over-saturated. Scotch whisky as a protected trade name has many extra regulations and has to mature at least 3 years before it may be sold. So it was only from the late 2010s that a slower second wave of Scotch distilleries began trading, hopefully on a more sustainable basis than the "boutique gin" fashion.
Bowmore iCentre is the island tourist office, next to Bowmore Distillery. It's open Apr-Aug: M-Sa 10:00-17:00, Su 12:00-15:00.
1 Islay Airport (ILY IATA). Loganair has two or three flights a day from Glasgow (GLA IATA), taking one hour, in medium-sized turbo-props with a normal baggage allowance. Hebridean Air Services fly one day a week (usually Thursday) from Oban: this is a triangular route, with the morning flight heading first to Colonsay then Islay then back to Oban, while the afternoon flight is direct to Islay, continues to Colonsay then returns to Oban. These aircraft are small BNF Islanders with 10 kg maximum baggage allowance. (Oban has no mainland flights, so for inter-city connections you have to route via Glasgow.) Islay airport terminal is very small, with toilets; one hour before flight suffices here for check-in and security. Local car hire firms pick up and drop off at the airport, but you must book. The bus stops at the airport, see "Get around".
Calmac ferries sail from Kennacraig to two ports on Islay, both taking just over two hours. April to Oct there's 2-3 sailings daily to both 2 Port Ellen and 3 Port Askaig; in winter there are only one or two per day. Return fares until end of March 2024 are £73.40 per car, £14.50 per adult including driver and £7.30 per child. Use the Port Askaig ferry to reach Jura. On Saturdays and summer Wednesdays this ferry continues to Colonsay. The timetable is amended Feb-Mar 2023 when the regular ferry goes in for maintenance and a slower, smaller replacement is sailing.
The mainland port Kennacraig is near Tarbert on the Mull of Kintyre, a 3-hour drive from Glasgow. Citylink buses from Glasgow Buchanan station connect with some sailings and continue to Campbeltown near the Mull of Kintyre.
Kintyre Express is a foot-passenger ferry to Port Ellen from Ballycastle in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. This runs April-Sept F-M, sailing from Ballycastle at 09:30, taking an hour and returning at 15:00, so a day trip is possible from Ireland but not from Islay. Adult fares in 2023 are £80 single, £150 return, bikes are free.
Islay Coaches Bus 450 / 451 runs along the spine of the island from Ardbeg to Port Ellen, the airport, Bowmore and Bridgend then either east to Port Askaig, or west to Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte and Portnahaven. It runs M-F only, roughly hourly on the Port Ellen - Bowmore stretch, with the route varying slightly on schooldays.
The main roads are undivided two lane and in good repair. Side roads are single track with passing places.
Car hire is available from Islay Car Hire (+44 1496 810544 or +44 7824 665099) and Cresswell Cars (+44 1496 302300). Both will meet & greet at the airport and ferry piers, but may decline one-day hires in summer. You may take their cars to Jura but not to the mainland. No dogs, bikes, smoking or sleeping in vehicles.
Hitchhiking is safe and easy on Islay.
The distilleries are here described clockwise. Three of them - Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig - are linked by a footpath with each other and to Port Ellen, a 4-mile walk each way. The others are scattered around the island. Prices quoted are for the standard tour; the shop may remain open in winter or during maintenance shut-downs when tours are curtailed. See also Jura, which has one whisky distillery.
- 1 Ardbeg Distillery, Port Ellen PA42 7EA, ☏ . Apr-Oct: Tu-Sa 09:30-17:00; Nov-Mar: M-F 09:30-17:30. Ardbeg (An Àird Bheag, the small promontory) first distilled in 1798, with the latest spell from 1997. It's now owned by LVMH and produces a heavy peaty malt. Tours from £12.
- 2 Lagavulin Distillery, Port Ellen PA42 7DZ, ☏ . Mar-Sep: daily 10:00-17:00. Lag a' Mhuilinn means "hollow of the mill". The distillery was founded in 1816 and is now part of Diageo, producing a smoky, peaty single malt. Tour £22.
- 3 Laphroaig Distillery, Port Ellen PA42 7DU, ☏ . Apr-mid Dec: daily 10:00-17:00. Founded in 1815; the name might derive from Lag Bhròdhaig, "hollow of the broad bay". Since 2014 it's been owned by Beam Suntory. Although peaty and smoky, the whisky is pleasantly light, and sometimes dissed by the drouthy as "a gerrill's drink". Tour £15.
- Port Ellen Distillery operated from 1825 to 1983: its bright warehouses still greet the arriving ferries, and its malt-house supplies malted barley to other island distilleries. It's now owned by Diageo who plan to re-open it in 2023.
- 4 Bowmore Distillery, School St, Bowmore PA43 7JS, ☏ , email@example.com. Apr-Sep: Tu-Sa 10:00-17:00. This was founded in 1779 to become surely the only scotch whisky distillery ever to be owned by a German vice-consul to the Ottoman Empire. Herr Mutter even built a steamship to import grain and export the whisky. Anti-German sentiment finished off the business in 1915; it had a series of owners and spells of production before joining Beam Suntory in 1994. The product is shipped to Glasgow for bottling. Their 12-year old single malt is smoky and peaty, sweet with a citrus tang, but doesn't have the seaweed / iodine notes typical of Islay whisky. Tour £18.
- 5 Bruichladdich Distillery, PA49 7UN, ☏ . Apr-Oct: Tu-Su 11:00-17:00. Bruthach a' Chladaich means "Brae of the Shore" and the distillery was founded by Loch Indaal in 1881. It was state-of-the-art for its time, with unusually tall narrow stills. It had stop-start production in the 20th century so it was never modernised, and the original equipment was restored from 2013 under the ownership of Rémy Cointreau. Those whiskies marketed as Bruichladdich are unpeated, those as Port Charlotte are peated, and Octomore is so heavily peated that crofters would thrust long spades into it if you left your drink unattended. They also produce gin. Tour £10.
- 6 Kilchoman Distillery, Rockside Farm, Bruichladdich PA49 7UT, ☏ . Apr-Oct: daily 10:00-17:00; Nov-Mar: Tu-Th Sa 10:00-17:00. Independent distillery established in 2005, with the first whisky on sale in 2009. It's peaty to the same level as Ardbeg, 50 ppm. Tour £10.
- 7 Bunnahabhain Distillery, Port Askaig PA46 7RP, ☏ . Apr-Oct: daily 10:00-17:00; Nov-Mar: M-Sa 10:00-16:00, Su 12:00-16:00. Bun na h-Abhainne means "mouth of the river" and the distillery came first in 1881, then the village was built to house the workers. Until the 1960s you could only get in and out by boat, then the road was made from Port Askaig. The whisky is light and unpeated; the place is now owned by Highland Distillers. Tours of the production area remain suspended, but they still offer tastings.
- 8 Ardnahoe Distillery, Port Askaig PA46 7RU, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. Daily 10:00-17:00. Ardnahoe means "the height of the hollow". It's independently owned by the Laing family and opened in 2019, with its products first on sale in Nov 2021. Tour £10.
- 9 Caol Ila Distillery, Port Askaig PA46 7RL, ☏ . Closed. Caol Ila means the Straits of Islay that the distillery overlooks, the channel separating Jura. It was founded in 1846 but had a chequered commercial history.The present distillery has operated since 1974 and is owned by Diageo, but is closed for reconstruction.
- Lost distilleries obviously can't be shown on the map, but they illustrate the ups and downs of the Victorian trade. Some 60 went out of business in Islay in that era, mostly small farm distilleries that couldn't ramp up to mass production and economy of scale. Their product still occasionally turns up, though you need to be sceptical of provenance and quality - older is not necessarily better. Anything recovered from a shipwreck is probably genuine but has turned into balsamic vinegar.
- 10 Kildalton Cross is a magnificent Celtic High Cross from 8th century AD, ornately carved, the finest of its kind. A plain medieval cross and ruined church stand nearby, along the shore road 10 miles east of Port Ellen; Cill Daltain in Gaelic indicates the Church of St John the Evangelist. The site is free to access 24 hours.
- Kildalton Castle two miles back towards Port Ellen is not worth seeking out, but a cautionary tale. It was built in 1870 as a grandiose baronial mock-castle, but it was unaffordable even with a whisky distilling fortune. Its 1920s owner Talbot Clifton spent even more on global expeditions to shoot and eat previously unknown species. He died as he was returning from Timbuktu, perhaps something he ate, and was brought back for burial on Islay. The castle fell into ruin and has been reclaimed by the jungle.
- Dunyvaig Castle is a ruin on the shore in front of Lagavulin Distillery. In the 13th / 14th century it was the shipping base of the Lord of the Isles. But that made it vulnerable to anyone with stronger sea power, and it changed hands in strife or surrender several times. The last owners the Campbells demolished it in 1677 and went to live in Islay House.
- 11 Texa (Teacsa) is the small island seen off Laphroaig Distillery. It was depopulated in the early 19th century, leaving the ruins of a medieval chapel for the wild goats to enjoy.
- 12 Carraig Fhada Lighthouse is the unusual square tower that greets ferries approaching Port Ellen. It was built in 1832 but looks more like a whitewashed medieval turret. The light has been automated and you can't go inside.
- 13 The Oa (An Obha) is the rocky peninsula southwest of Port Ellen that in no way resembles the planet Oa in DC Comics. The whole area is an RSPB nature reserve, accessible 24 hours, free but donations welcome. Birds to look for here include chough, golden eagle, hen harrier, peregrine falcon and twite. There's a couple of short walking trails. The road ends at a car park a mile short of the southwest tip, then a path brings you to the American Memorial, built 1920. This stone tower commemorates the loss of two troopships nearby. In Feb 1918 the Tuscania was in convoy from the US to France when it was torpedoed and sank with the loss of 230 lives. Then in Oct 1918 the Otranto, carrying troops from New York to Glasgow, collided with another ship during a storm, and 400 lives were lost.
- 14 Soldier's Rock is Islay's best sea-stack, in a rugged cove of natural arches and ravines. Reach it by the rough two mile trail from Kintra, past the abandoned village of Ghrasdail.
- Bowmore is the attractive village around Bowmore Distillery. It was built in 1770 as a planned village on a grid pattern, with an unusual circular parish church at the head of Main St. The people of Kilarrow were then resettled here as their village was demolished to make way for Islay House.
- Bridgend, formerly Kilarrow, at the Y-junction of the island's main roads. The churchyard has many mediaeval tomb slabs. For Islay House see Sleep. The octagonal east guard tower was built in 1760, and there's a square west tower by the shore.
- 15 Dùn Nosebridge is an Iron Age earth rampart reached by a 1½ mile walk from the start of the Cluanach lane near Bridgend. Its inhabitants didn't sport lorgnettes or pince-nez opera glasses, the curious name is probably Old Norse hnaus-bog, turf fort.
- Dùn Ghùaidhre is an Iron Age fort half a mile south of Kilmeny on the road to Port Askaig. It's on farmland with no public access, but you can see its hilltop earthworks from the road.
- 16 Finlaggan, Finlaggan Farm Road PA45 7QT (3 miles west of Port Askaig), ☏ . Visitor centre Apr-Oct: M-Sa 10:30-16:15. Loch Finlaggan is a freshwater lake. At its north end are two islands which in the 13th-15th centuries were the seat of the Lord of the Isles, until rule passed to the King of Scotland. A visitor centre displays various artefacts of that era. A bridge links to Eilean Mòr ("the Big Island"), which can always be accessed even when the centre is closed. Here the main ruin is the castle (simply a fortified house), plus a medieval chapel and 16th-century graves. You can't routinely visit Eilean na Comhairle ("the Council Island"), which has the fragmentary remains of the Lords' council chambers. Adult £4.
- 17 Ruvaal Lighthouse is at the north tip of Islay, marking the entrance to the channel separating Jura. Built by David and Thomas Stevenson, it was completed in 1859 and automated in 1983. One of the original lens has ended up as a garden ornament on Colonsay.
- 18 Loch Gruinart, Gruinart PA44 7PP, ☏ . Visitor centre daily 10:00-17:00. This is a sea loch; at its head are the Gruinart Flats wetland, an RSPB reserve. Great masses of barnacle geese roost here in winter; look out also for corncrakes, hen harriers and otters. The reserve is always open. There are two trails, the Woodland Trail (a mile) and the Moorland Trail (2 miles). You can cycle from Uiskentuie (on the A847) along the B8017 to the visitor centre, and then north to Ardnave, 7 miles each way. Free, donations welcome.
- Kilnave Chapel is a ruin along the west shore of Loch Gruinart, built around 1400. In 1598 the Macleans landed mob-handed to wrest the territory from the Macdonalds, but were beaten, apparently with the assistence of a fairy-dwarf hidden in a tree. (A tree on Islay? That stretches belief.) The Macleans were cut off from their boats and some 30 fled into the chapel, which the Macdonalds burned down upon them.
- 19 shows signs of the same early Christian settlement as at Loch Gruinart, and Naoimh indicates a saint. The ruined chapel is by the chasm that almost severs the island. A 1549 account states that "on the north coist of Ila, beside the entresse of Lochgrunord, layes ane iyle, called by the Erish Ellan-nese, with ane kirke in it. This iyle is half ane myle in lenthe, fair maynland, inhabit and manurit, guid for fishing." The island also has a furnace from the early 19th century kelp industry but is no longer "inhabit" let alone "manurit".
- Rinns of Islay is the double-headed peninsula on the west side of Islay, between Nave Island north and Orsay south. It's low-lying heath and grazing land, popular with geese and other migratory and over-wintering birds. The sea inlets of Loch Indaal south and Loch Gruinart north mark an extension of the Great Glen fault line, which slices diagonally across the mainland from Inverness and continues southwest through Donegal.
- 20 Ballinaby Standing Stones are nowadays one-and-a-bit. The main stone is 5 m tall by 1 m wide by 0.3 m thick. The second stone 200 yards northeast looks to have been deliberately broken and is now 2 m tall; a third stone has disappeared. The group may have been aligned to solstice moonrise and set.
- Kilchoman is an abandoned settlement half a mile southwest of Kilchoman Distillery. An impressive 14th/15th-century High Cross stands by the ruined church; a smaller cross stands a third of a mile away. Many of those lost in Otranto in 1918 lie in the graveyard. The church was built in 1827 when its medieval predecessor became tumbledown, and in turn was abandoned in 1977.
- 21 Museum of Islay Life, Daal Terr, Port Charlotte PA48 7UA, ☏ . Apr-Oct: M-F 10:30-16:30. This is housed in the former Kilchoman Free Church, which is very pointedly not in Kilchoman. That community became depopulated and 1843 saw a great feud and "Disruption" of the Church of Scotland. The breakaway "free" faction worshipped here in a righteous huff until a 1929 reconciliation made their Free Church redundant. The museum has over 1600 items, spanning from the Mesolithic period 10,000 years ago till 1950. Adult £5, conc £4, child free.
- 22 Orsay (Orasaigh) is the small island sheltering Portnahaven. The lighthouse was built in 1825 by Robert Stevenson. St Oran's chapel is early medieval, with an 18th/19th-century extension. The island is just grazing land, as is Eilean Mhic Coinnich just north.
- What's on? Read Ileach or Islay-Jura Events.
- Live music (not necessarily traditional) is at Port Charlotte Hotel Apr-Oct: W Su from 20:00.
- McTaggart Leisure Centre, School Street, Bowmore PA43 7JS, ☏ . Tu-F 11:00-19:00, Sa Su 10:30-17:30. This has a swimming pool, sauna and gym.
- Kayak Wild Islay, Charlotte St, Port Ellen PA42 7BY, ☏ . Sea kayaking around the coastline of Islay. Based in Port Ellen, but tours from other points on Islay or Jura are possible on request. The half day is recommended for beginners. Full day £85, half day £60.
- Adventure Kayaking, 11 Beech Avenue, Bowmore PH43 7HT, ☏ . Daily 09:00-20:00. Sea kayak tours and training.
- Islay Whisky Academy is in Bowmore: yes you can even take a diploma in drinking the stuff, though we've yet to hear how Ofsted rate the "Peat-cutting Adventure".
- Golf: Machrie Links is 6400 yards off blue tees, par 72, visitor £130 per round or £160 all day.
- Beaches: any of them may be enlivened by Highland cattle strolling past.
- Mountains: frankly Islay has these the way Denmark has whisky distilleries, but there's an upland area on the east coast facing Argyll. Seven hills count as Marilyns, with the highest Beinn Bheigeir or Vicar (1611 ft / 491 m). Approach along the south coast road from Port Ellen via Kildalton to Ardtalla.
- Islay Festival / Feis Ile has folk concerts, Gaelic lessons, whisky, ceilidhs, whisky, golf... um, did we mention whisky already? It's held in the last week of May, with the next on F 26 May - Su 4 June 2023.
- Cantilena Festival is a chamber music festival held for a week in July. A permanent cadre of six professionals selects young musicians from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to join them for what will likely be their first extended performing tour. The next is probably 2-7 July 2023, tbc.
- Islay Half Marathon is in early August. The route is a circle from Bowmore out to the airport then back, some gradients but no proper hills.
- Islay Jazz Festival is held in September, multiple venues but often at the distilleries.
- In Port Ellen and in Bowmore the Co-op is open daily 07:00-22:00.
- The Arts & Crafts Market is held in Bruichladdich village hall Tu Th 10:00-16:30.
- Port Ellen has Ardview Inn (see Drink) and Seasalt Bistro (Tu-Su 12:00-14:30, 17:00-20:45).
- Bowmore has Taj Mahal (below), Golden Dragon, Peatzeria and Cottage Cafe.
- Taj Mahal, Shore Street, Bowmore PA43 7LB, ☏ . Daily 12:00-14:00 & 16:30-22:00. A great little Indian restaurant in the centre of Bowmore. They don't serve alcohol, but you can bring your own. Cash only.
- Bridgend Hotel, Bridgend PA44 7PB (at junction), ☏ . Daily 12:00-14:00 & 18:00-21:00. 3-star with rooms, but it's best known for its restaurant. The bar also does meals. B&B double £130.
- Port Charlotte has Loch Indaal Seafood Kitchen open Tu-Su 18:00-21:00.
- Port Ellen: Ardview Inn is open daily and serves meals. No 1 Charlotte St has a drouthy bar and offers B&B.
- Wine[dead link] from Islay? Yes, flavours include rhubarb and bramble, taste before you buy. Mis en bouteille at Mansfield Rd Port Ellen, open M-Sa 10:00-18:00.
- Islay Ale Brewery, Islay House Square, Bridgend, PA44 7NZ, ☏ . Closed. The only brewery on Islay, producing real ales since 2004. No tours.
- Islay Gin is also distilled at Islay House.
- Islay Hotel is by the ferry pier in Port Ellen, B&B double from £220.
- Glenegedale House is an agreeable B&B opposite the airport.
- Machrie Hotel is a mid-range hotel on the golf links south of the airport.
- Harbour Inn, The Square, Bowmore PA43 7JR, ☏ , email@example.com. This remains closed throughout 2022. It's owned by Bowmore Distillery with seven rooms, a restaurant and a pub with good selection of whisky. They also run several nearby self-catering cottages.
- Bowmore accommodation also includes Bowmore Hotel, Bowmore House, Lambeth Guesthouse and Lochside Inn.
- 1 Islay House, Bridgend PA44 7PA, ☏ . This is where the Campbells moved when they abandoned Dunyvaig in 1677. They spent a fortune embellishing it and went bust in 1847. However the place continued to have prosperous owners, and was converted to a hotel in 2014. Open Apr-Oct, great scores for comfort, service and dining. B&B double £260.
- 2 Ballygrant Inn, Ballygrant PA45 7QR (Halfway between Bridgend and Port Askaig), ☏ . Small hotel with bar and restaurant. Ten-min walk to Finlaggan. B&B double £180.
- Kilmeny Country House, also at Ballygrant, is a charming B&B open Mar-Oct. Cash only.
- Port Askaig Hotel, Port Askaig, PA46 7RD, ☏ . Next to the ferry pier, this is one of the island's oldest inns, and feels it - needs refurbishment. No dogs. The pub does bar meals. B&B double £180.
- 3 Port Mor Centre, Port Charlotte PA48 7UE (Half a mile southwest of Port Charlotte), ☏ , (the cafe). Camping £10 ppn. Camp & caravan site open Mar-Nov. Licensed cafe is open daily 08:00-20:30, no dogs indoors.
- 4 Port Charlotte Youth Hostel, Main St, Port Charlotte PA48 7TX, ☏ . Check-in: 17:00, check-out: 10:00. Hostel open Mar-Sep in old whisky warehouse. 30 beds with good common room facilities, free wifi. The well-equipped kitchen is locked between 10:00 and 14:00. Dorm £23 ppn, 4-person private room £92.
- 5 Port Charlotte Hotel, Main St, Port Charlotte PA48 7TU, ☏ . Comfy hotel, does good bar meals and often has live traditional music on Wednesday and Sunday evenings. There is a beer garden at the back. Excellent selection of whisky, but establish the price first (especially if they're coy about it) - it could be £50 a shot. B&B double £250.
- Lochindaal Hotel in Port Charlotte has accommodation in four adjacent converted cottages.
- Loch Gorm House is a bijou B&B with only 3 bedrooms in Bruichladdich, open Mar-Dec.
- Self-catering cottages are dotted all over Islay. They're usually rented by the week, expect to pay £500 or more for that.
Islay is a pretty safe place and any crime here is likely to be big news.
As of June 2022, the main villages and roads between them have 4G from EE, O2, Three and (patchily) from Vodafone. 5G has not reached Islay.
- Isle of Jura is a 5-min ferry trip from Port Askaig, but then it's a long lonely road, you need a car. Jura has a distillery, lots of walks and lots of deer. It's an easy day-trip.
- Colonsay: the ferries from Kennacraig to Port Askaig continue to Colonsay Apr-Oct on Wednesdays and Saturdays, taking 70 min. A day-trip is possible with six hours on Colonsay, as the ferry sails on to Oban then turns around and retraces its route. Nov-March there's still a connection once or twice a week, but only one sailing so a day-trip isn't possible.
- Otherwise it's back to the mainland of Argyll, but other islands lie within reach. A short drive from Kennacraig brings you to Claonaig, which has a ferry to the Isle of Arran. Or continue south for the short crossing from Tayinloan to Gigha.