Islay is often known as the Queen of the Hebrides, and justifably so. The southermost of the Hebridean Isles, Islay boasts spectacular scenery, a rich cultural tradition, a colourful history and fascinating wildlife. There are also eight distilleries on the island producing world-famous whisky - but, if that's not your thing, Islay has some of the best beaches in Scotland, one of the finest Celtic crosses and some fantastic cultural events.
How to get here
There are two ways of getting to Islay - by sea or by air. Caledonian MacBrayne ferries run from Kennacraig in Kintyre to Port Ellen and Port Askaig, and flights from Glasgow to Islay are operated by Flybe (as Loganair). There are ferry services from islay to the neighbouring islands of Jura and Colonsay, making it a good base for further exploration.
The whisky tour
Many people come to Islay for the whisky - and who can blame them? There are nine distilleries on Islay - Ardbeg, Ardnahoe (due to open in 2018), Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ile, Kilchoman, Lagavulin and Laphraoig. There is also one on neighbouring Jura. Each of the whiskies is distinct and unique.
Islay is a cultural Mecca! If you like whisky, don't just do the distilleries tour - why not come to Feis Ile (the Festival of Music and Malt) as well? Lasting a week, the festival takes place in May and celebrates island heritage and music. Speaking of music, Mod Ile (Gaelic festival) is in June, while the Islay Jazz Festival brings genuinely world class acts to the island for a weekend in September. If you're looking for something a bit more laid back and informal, we can recommend music nights at the Port Charlotte Hotel (held usually on Wednesdays and Sundays).
Yes - people do come to Islay for the sport, especially the Beach Rugby Tournament held in the second weekend of June. There's also the annual Islay Half-Marathon which is one of the most picturesque routes in the country and well worth signing up for. If you see a man struggling towards the back, please do stop and say "Hello" to me!
Islay has some terrific, and understated, beaches. There are too many to mention, but among my personal favourites are Saligo Bay, Lossit Bay, Laggan Bay, and Kilnaughton Bay.
I can't do Islay's history justice in a few short sentences, but here's a short summary. There isn't much mention of Islay until St Columba supposedly landed here (apparently, he could still see Ireland so he sailed further north and founded a monastery in Iona instead), but there were clearly well-developed communities on the island prior to that as evidenced by the Iron Age hillfort at Dun Nosebridge, the chambered cairn at Cragabus and the Cultoon stone circle. Kildalton Cross was carved in the 8th century; the adjacent chapel was constructed in the 13th century, around the same time as the Lords of the Isles were building their seat of power at Finlaggan Castle. In 1493, the capture of Domhnall Dubh effectively brought an end to the Lordship - Finlaggan was abandoned and Dun Naomhaig Castle passed to the MacIans. A significant battle was fought on the shores of Loch Gruinart in 1598, with the local Clan Donald triumphing after setting fire to Kilnave chapel with several hundred Macleans inside.
In 1677 Dun Naomhaig was abandoned and Islay House was built. Almost 50 years later Daniel Campbell of Shawfield bought the island, with he and his descendants making improvements that are noticeable today - bulding roads and creating new villages, such as Bowmore (1770), Port Ellen (1821), and Port Charlotte (1828). A new harbour was created at Port Askaig, and building work on the Round Church commenced in 1767.
Islay was not immune to the effects of the clearances, although more subtle means were used to oust tenant farmers and some people who left did so for economic reasons. The small farming settlements many lived on at this time can be seen in the ruins at Tockmal on the Oa.
In 1918 two troop ships and off the coast of Islay - the Tuscania and the Otranto. The former was torpedoed while the latter was involved in a serious collision. The American Monument on the Mull of Oa was erected to the memory of those who perished. During World War II an RAF radar station was established at Saligo, much of which can still be seen today.