Free extract - Scottish Island Bagging by Helen and Paul Webster
- Wednesday 20 May 2020
Portnahaven. © Helen and Paul Webster.
'Island bagging is highly addictive so we hope that we will help to spread visitors to many of the lesser-visited Scottish islands and encourage people to return for Scottish holidays year after year.’ – Helen and Paul Webster, authors of Scottish Island Bagging
Otters, orcas and basking sharks; world-renowned seafood; 5,000-year-old Neolithic villages; wild clifftops and beautiful deserted beaches – the islands of Scotland have it all.
Focusing on easily accessible destinations and those of significant size or interest, Scottish Island Bagging – the by the founders of Walkhighlands, Britain’s busiest website for walking and hiking in Scotland – offers a number of in-depth experiences across 144 Scottish islands, encouraging visitors to understand the unique heritage of each island.
The extract below is a guide to the isle of Islay, the southernmost of the Inner Hebrides islands off the west coast of Scotland. Known for its whisky, the island’s numerous distilleries produce its characteristically peaty single malts.
You can almost catch the smell of the angels’ share on Islay’s sea breezes. This island – even more than Speyside – is regarded as the spiritual home of Scotch whisky, and the names of its distilleries are famed worldwide for their rich, peaty malts. But there’s much more to the island than the water of life. Islay is known as the ‘Queen of the Hebrides’ and is blessed with picturesque whitewashed villages, unique birdlife, fine sandy beaches and a rugged coastline worthy of exploration.
Islay is well served by large CalMac vehicle ferries from Kennacraig on the Kintyre peninsula. These sail two or three times a day, landing at either the village of Port Ellen in the south (2 hours 10 mins), or tiny Port Askaig (2 hours 5 mins) overlooking Jura, and most have connecting bus links from Glasgow. In the summer there’s also a weekly ferry from Oban, via Colonsay. Islay has an airport at Glenegedale, served by three daily flights from Glasgow in the summer and two in the winter, as well as a twice-a-week day return service from Oban and Colonsay.
The island has a wide range of accommodation, shops and places to eat, and all the main villages are linked by bus.
Discover the water of life
With nine working distilleries, many in picturesque seaside locations, Islay is simply the place to sample a dram. Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg distilleries on the south coast are the island’s most famous and heavily peated. It’s fascinating to see behind the scenes, inhale the heady brewery scent from the giant vats of bubbling wort and check out the vast quantities of whisky maturing for years in the bonded warehouses. It’s also a great way to warm up on a dreich and rainy day. The distilleries offer standard tours and tastings of their main single malts, but also more specialist tours designed to appeal to the real connoisseur. These are often in intimate small groups with the opportunity to sample some of their rarer expressions. Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg can all be visited on foot or by bike on a dedicated six-kilometre path from Port Ellen, although it’s best to book the actual tours in advance. Ardbeg – the last of the three – has a very fine cafe, and you can even return to Port Ellen by bus if you’re feeling a little wobbly at the end of your adventures in malt.
Monument. © Helen and Paul Webster.
Islay is a heaven for birdwatchers, renowned for the chance to see rare species like the chough and the corncrake, and for the many thousands of overwintering geese who migrate from the Arctic to munch on Islay’s verdant grass. Head to the RSPB centre at Loch Gruinart to visit hides overlooking the loch and check the recent sightings – during the winter months a dawn or dusk visit can be spectacular as the geese arrive or depart to and from their favourite grazing spots. Spring brings masses of migrating birds including plenty of rare oddities blown off course and taking shelter on the island for a short while. The coastal cliffs support a wide variety of seabirds including nesting puffins on the Oa peninsula – also a good place to look out for golden eagles and hen harriers.
Pay your respects to the Lords of the Isles
Islay has an important place in the history of Scotland’s islands, and there are a several sites in stunningly scenic locations which no visitor can afford to miss. First stop for history buffs should be Finlaggan, a few kilometres from Port Askaig. On an island on a loch here lived the Lords of the Isles who ruled a large kingdom across the west of Scotland from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. Today you can walk across a boardwalk to visit the site and see the remains of a castle and chapel, together with some very fine carved sixteenth-century gravestones and numerous archaeological artefacts.
Visit Bowmore’s round church
This striking circular building dominates Bowmore from its position at the top of the Main Street. It was built in the 1760s, and its roof is supported by a massive central oak pillar and walls that are almost a metre thick.
See Kildalton Cross
This ancient carved cross in the remote graveyard of Kildalton Church is regarded as the finest surviving example of early Celtic Christian carving. Dating from AD 800, it features the classic spiral and knot work around two roundels, Christ as a lion, the Virgin and Child, and scenes including Cain killing Abel, the sacrifice of Isaac, and David slaying a lion. There’s another very fine cross at Kilchoman on the Rinns peninsula.
Machir Bay and Kilchoman
Islay has some superb beaches, including Laggan Bay which stretches for over seven kilometres along the east coast. The finest, however, is Machir Bay on the Rinns peninsula – a perfect expanse of golden sand backed by dunes and just a short walk from a car park. Before leaving, be sure to visit the nearby Kilchoman distillery. Opened in only 2005, this was the first new distillery on Islay for 124 years, but its traditional methods are a contrast to the mass production of its big-name rivals. It uses barley grown on its own farm, and is one of only six distilleries in Scotland to still carry out all its own traditional floor maltings. Non-whisky buffs will enjoy the cafe which serves the finest Victoria sponge cake you can imagine.
Bheinn. © Helen and Paul Webster.
Mull of Oa
The Oa peninsula is Islay at its most rugged, a wild moorland fringed with fine sea cliffs. Its final headland – the Mull of Oa – is the site of the dramatic American Monument, perched 130 metres above the waves. Towards the end of the First World War, a massive troop ship carrying over 2,000 US soldiers was torpedoed off the Oa. Although other boats in the convoy quickly began a rescue mission, many men drowned and in some cases lifeboats were dashed against the high cliffs. The stories of locals rescuing survivors and providing dignified burials for many of the lost are very poignant and can be explored at the fascinating Museum of Islay Life in Port Charlotte. The American Monument commemorates both this disaster and the shipwreck of the HMS Otranto in 1918 with the loss of over 350 souls. There’s a waymarked three-kilometre circular walk out to the Mull from the car park at the end of the road.
Bag the Beinn
At 491 metres high, Beinn Bheigier doesn’t rival the great Paps on neighbouring Jura, however as the highest point on Islay it does command fabulous views; the summit can usually be enjoyed in splendid solitude as the hike up involves tough, pathless terrain that deters many. The usual start point is the end of the road at Claggain Bay on the east coast. An often sodden path can be followed via Ardtalla to the empty cottage at Proaig, from where a stiff walk through deep heather leads up to the summit. If you fancy walking company, the island hosts an annual festival in April that usually takes in guided walks on Colonsay and Jura as well.
Islay’s annual ‘music and malt festival’ is held at the end of May and combines a varied programme of tunes, songs, history, piping, Gaelic workshops, and just the occasional dram at special distillery open days, as well as friendly ceilidhs and food-themed events. For those seeking an even more laid-back vibe there’s an annual jazz festival too – held in September, it’s also sponsored by a whisky producer. www.islayfestival.com
Islay Book Festival
Held every September, the Islay Book Festival has a varied literary programme, often featuring books with a connection to the water of life, of course. www.islaybookfestival.co.uk
Beach rugby tournament
Each June, over a thousand spectators watch thirty teams of both sexes battling it out on a pitch set up on Port Ellen’s sandy seafront.
Ride of the Falling Rain
Taking place in August (which has surprisingly high rainfall figures) this very informal 162-kilometre cycle ride around the island stops midway at Ardbeg distillery and raises funds for World Bicycle Relief, which does what it says on the tin.