A brief visit to Islay
Ted and I had been intending for several years to visit Islay, the largest and most populated Scottish island we had never reached. The opportunity arose in late April 2019, we booked two nights at the Port Askaig Hotel and off we went. We were lucky to choose a period of good weather – our arrival and departure days were bright and, while the middle day started with drizzle, it improved as the day went on.
Leaving Kennacraig (left) and approaching the Sound of Islay (right and below)
Approaching Port Askaig
Getting there is part of the adventure – the coach takes three and a bit hours from Glasgow to reach Kennacraig pier and the ferry. The scenery means that the time soon passed as we bowled along Loch Lomondside, round the top of Loch Long and over the Rest-and-be-Thankful to Loch Fyne, Inveraray and Tarbert. From Kennacraig it was a further two hours on the MV Finlaggan, the newer of the two ferries on the Islay route, to Port Askaig. The sea was calm but the wind was cold so after some time on deck as we sailed down West Loch Tarbert and north of the island of Gigha we retreated inside and treated ourselves to remarkably good fish and chips. We were back on deck for the sail along the Sound of Islay, the narrow strait of water that separates Islay from Jur a with the hills of Islay to port and the dramatic Paps of Jura dominating the view to starboard.
There is not much to Port Askaig (above) apart from the ferry slipways for the mainland and Jura, the hotel, shop, small harbour and lifeboat station, surrounded by steep hills. As we arrived we saw what seemed like the bare face of a quarry behind the village. The ferry terminal was rebuilt in 2006-09 and part of the hillside was scooped out to provide better road access and a larger queuing area for the ferries. A couple of years ago a storm led to a landslip on the new hill face and they are still working to stabilise the slope.
The hotel is what I think of as a typical Highland hotel. There has been an inn on the site for four hundred years and the current building dates from the eighteenth century. Outside there are picnic table where you can sit looking over to the Paps of Jura and watching the ferries and people come and go. There’s a public bar, lounge bar and restaurant and every room is different. It has been modernised without destroying its character. When a group of tourists in the public bar started drinking malts at £20 a nip and sharing what looked like a delicious seafood platter (£75, but a whole lobster and crab were only part of it) you realise that times have moved on since my early visits to the Highlands and Islands). The room was comfortable, the staff were friendly (though I hardly saw the same person twice) and the cost was reasonable for somewhere dependent on a limited season.
We set off to explore Islay the following day after studying the bus timetable. It is a sizable island (239 square miles, 620 sq km) and from Bowmore, the small capital of the island, it is 10 miles to Port Askaig to the east, 10 miles to Port Ellen to the south and 17 miles to Portnahaven to the west. It wasn’t possible to reach everywhere and meet our essential conditions of plenty time for breakfast before setting off and the opportunity for a couple of pints along the way. The first bus was about fifteen minutes late. I was trying to remember how to use a phone box (there was no mobile signal) and had just discovered that the minimum call charge is 60p, when the bus came pootling down the hill. He had had to refuel then was stuck behind a slow lorry for much of his journey to Port Askaig.
The scenery is not as dramatic as some Hebridean islands but the countryside is pleasant. Parts of the island are hilly – the highest point is Beinn Bheigeir (1612ft, 491m) – there is plenty peat bog (though we saw no signs of recent peat cutting), plus some good quality agricultural land. The views from the coast to surrounding islands are varied and the beaches around Loch Indaal looked fine (we were told there are better on the remote north of the island, with Machir Bay (pictured) the best. The main villages are planned settlements of white cottages which gleamed in the sunlight. There are remains of prehistoric settlements and from the times when Islay was successively part of the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata, the Norse Kingdom of the Isles and the home of the Clan Donald Lordship of the Isles. The island suffered badly in the nineteenth century. By 1841 the population was over 15,000 but following the potato famine and large scale clearances by landowners the population dropped substantially and today is about 3,500. For a time the island was under single ownership and today most of the island consists of five estates with mainly non-resident owners.
Our first destination was Port Ellen, the island’s other ferry port, which curves round the natural harbour of Loch Leodamais (pictured). It was built in 1821 on the site of a small fishing village to relocate people away from scattered townships on fertile land and became a base for the island’s whisky industry – today the large maltings serves most of the distilleries on Islay.
The adventure of the day was rescuing a seagull that had become trapped in an open recycling bin (pictured)– I was sitting eating a sandwich from the Port Ellen Co-op and Ted was watching hungrily when we heard a flapping noise from the bin. We couldn’t identify it until I had a quick peek. After my recent seagull attack (see Around South Wales ) there’s no way I was going close to the thing but then the street sweeper came along. He closed the bin (I thought he was planning to suffocate the bird) then tipped it at an angle while I opened the bin from a distance with the end of his brush until it was easy for the gull to escape (without a word of thanks).
Time for a pint and the Ardview Inn turned out to be a typical boozer – no decent beer but cosy and friendly. Like everywhere on the island they had a fine selection of Islay malts. They had also catered for the trend for obscure and varied gins – the Botanist Islay gin is good stuff, a second Nerabus is also produced on the island. The pub also stocked gin with the impressive name of Glaswe Gin.
We couldn’t reach Portnahaven, at the end of the west road in the area known as the Rhinns of Islay without staying on the same bus and heading straight back to Bowmore. However, if we alighted at Port Charlotte there was forty-five minutes before the bus came back, in other words time for a pint. We managed a quick look round – it is another planed village, built by then then owner of the island in 1828 and well-maintained, before entering the public bar of the Port Charlotte hotel about three minutes later. The lunch service had just finished but the menu looked excellent, they had a tremendous selection of whisky and, much to our pleasure, they had a couple of Fyne Ales on handpump (and fine they are too). While a bit upmarket and foodie during the day it looked like it would become a proper pub later in the evening, and there was live music a couple of nights a week. This was the only draught cask beer we found on Islay. There is a small brewery on the island, Islay Ales. We tried a couple of their bottle conditioned beers Finlaggan Ale and Angus Og Ale, but didn’t see it on draught anywhere.
Port Charlotte (above) and Bowmore (below)
On the return journey from Port Charlotte we collected a group of lads who had been on a tour of the Bruichladdich distillery – when we reached Bowmore they headed straight for the Bowmore distillery. Obviously having a good day out. Bowmore was the first planned village, founded in 1768 to move people out of the old village of Kilarrow, which was demolished to provide privacy and a better view of Loch Indaal from Islay House – then home of the island’s owner and now a hotel. At the top of Main Street is the circular parish church – said to have been built without any corners in which the devil could hide. Bowmore is the capital of the island with the council offices, high school, pharmacy and leisure centre – it even stretches to a pizzeria and an Indian restaurant. There wasn’t much going on in Bowmore at three on a Tuesday afternoon and we took refuge in the Harbour Inn – first in the bistro area and then through to the bar when it opened at four. The problem of being an early doors drinker (and having a couple at lunchtime when on holiday) in rural areas where most people are car dependent means we spend a lot of time in almost empty pubs then miss out on the atmosphere later in the evening. Must sort this out without overtaxing my liver.
Islay is most well known for its whisky and recognised as one of Scotland’s five whisky distilling regions – the single malts have a distinctive peaty flavour which sets them apart from other Scottish whiskies. There are currently nine distilleries on the island. Seven – Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain, Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Bowmore and Bruichladdich are now owned by international groups such as Diageo and Suntory, Kilchoman is small and independent, aiming to replicate a traditional farmhouse distillery and the newest, Ardnahoe, is family owned and its first batch of whisky is currently maturing. I’m afraid to admit that we resisted the temptation and stuck to beer – whisky isn’t Ted’s favourite and I find it a drink that is better in the company of friends. This gives me an excuse to return with some willing volunteers.
Bear and malt – though this is cheating as the mirror is in the gents toilet of the Kirkstyle Inn, Dunning, Perthshire.
We took the opportunity to visit Jura. The island has 196 inhabitants in an area of 142 square miles, most of which is peat bog, apart from the distinctive Paps of Jura which rise to 2575ft (785m). On the small ferry from Port Askaig to Feolin there were two cars plus two kids on their way home from the secondary school in Bowmore. At Feolin the cars set off into the wilderness and a minibus whisked the kids home. The ferry doesn’t wait due to swift tides and high winds at the exposed so it collected the mobile library and left. Later we watched the ferry struggle as the water raced through the Sound of Islay. There is nothing at Feolin so we had a brief explore (ie a walk along the shore) before catching the next boat back. We normally don’t count as having been somewhere unless we’ve had a pint, but the only bar on Jura was eight miles away and the next bus was the one which would bring the school students back the following morning. Ted had to make do with a can of Irn Bru – we had plans for a can of Export but the shop in Port Askaig isn’t licensed.
We left Islay on the MV Hebridean Isles (pictured arriving at Port Askaig) to Oban via Colonsay. The sail up the Sound of Islay took us past the Caol Ila, Ardnahoe and Bunnahabhain distilleries then over open water to Colonsay. It calls for 15 minutes and there is no opportunity to land, but it looks interesting. I had picked up a leaflet about the island – with a population of 124 there’s a hotel, shop, gin distillery, bookshop, brewery, interesting walks, good beaches and plenty of holiday cottages. It might be worth a visit for a few days until cabin fever set in. From Colonsay it was another 2.5 hours to Oban on a lovely day, with Mull to one side and Scarba and the Garvellachs to the other then round the tip of Kerrera and into Oban.
On the ferry to Oban, passing the Caol ila and Bunnahabhain distilleries and approaching the pier at Colonsay
Getting to Islay
Caledonian MacBrayne ferries run about four times daily from Kennacraig (pictured) to Port Askaig or Port Ellen, taking just under two hours for the crossing. The passenger fare is £6.90. Full details at www.calmac.co.uk . Coaches to and from Glasgow connect at Kennacraig with most ferries and take about three hours. The service is Scottish Citylink service 926 (Glasgow to Campbeltown), the fare was £19.20 (ouch) and full details are at www.citylink.co.uk . The Calmac ferry from Port Askaig to Colonsay and Oban operates on Wednesday and Saturday during the summer season from April to October. The Port Askaig – Oban fare is £9.85. The ferry is timed to allow day trips from Kennacraig (Wednesday only) or Port Askaig to Colonsay.
The control tower, terminal building, car park and cattle grid at Islay airport
Flights. The airport is between Bowmore and Port Ellen and the bus service stops just outside. Loganair www.loganair.co.uk operate two daily flights to and from Glasgow and a daily flight to and from Edinburgh in summer. Hebridean Air www.hebrideanair.co.uk operate two flights to and from Oban each Thursday, one of which is via Colonsay.
The bus service on Islay is operated by Islay Coaches – the service is reasonably frequent during the day but there are no buses in the evenings or Sundays. A 24 hour ticket for the island network is £10. There is a limited minibus service on Jura operated by Garelochhead Coaches. Timetables are available on the Argyll and Bute Council website www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/timetable/bus – the Islay services are numbers 450/451 and the Jura service is the 456. Times vary between schooldays and non-schooldays – the timetables include a calendar clearly showing which applies. The Jura ferry from Port Askaig to Feolin is operated by Argyll and Bute Council. A timetable is available at www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/port-askaig-islay-feolin-jura-ferry-timetable though extra journeys run if there is the demand. The passenger fare is £1.90 single, £3.80 return.
Port Askaig Hotel: Details of the hotel and bookings can be made at www.portaskaig.co.uk .
All photographs are by Steve Gillon except for the following: The map is scanned from The Rough Guide to Scottish Highlands and Islands, Rob Humphreys et al, 7th edn., May 2014. Machir Bay and the Islay Coaches bus were sourced through Flickr on Google Images and are by Di_Chap and Bus-Ginger respectively.
Copyright: Text and all photos except for those mentioned above are copyright © Steve Gillon 2019