Portnahaven and its close neighbour Port Wemyss lie at the south-western tip of the Rhinns of Islay, the peninsula that wraps around the north side of Loch Indaal as it takes its huge bite out of the west side of the island.
Portnahaven and Port Wemyss are very much the end of the road in this northern part of Islay. Getting to them takes a little more effort that most places on the island. The last seven miles from Port Charlotte are along single track roads, though good quality ones. Rest assured, though, that the small effort this takes is well worth it. What you find at Portnahaven is a magical village of whitewashed cottages wrapped around the two steep sides of an inlet which concludes in a sandy beach.
Offshore are two islands. Orsay and its smaller neighbouring island of Eilean Mhic Coinnich shelter the harbour of Portnahaven from the weather coming in from the south and west. This was an major factor in choosing this site for the settlement when it was set up to house people cleared from the interior of Islay in the early 1800s, and provide them with an alternative living. There had been an earlier fishing settlement on the island of Orsay itself dating back to the 1300s. The ruins of a chapel are still visible on the skyline of the island to the north of the lighthouse.
The importance of the shelter afforded by the islands to Portnahaven's harbour is amply demonstrated by one of the area's recent claims to fame. Since 1989 the tip of the Rhinns of Islay had been the site of an experimental wave powered turbine generating electricity. In 2000, Wavegen Islay started commercial power generation using a LIMPET (Land Installed Marine Powered Energy Transformer) device on the shoreline at Claddach, north of Portnahaven. This uses the air compressed by waves in a large underground concrete chamber to power a turbine which, in turn, makes a significant contribution to the power supply of the island.
The abundant fish stocks that drove the early history of Portnahaven and Port Wemyss declined over the years, though Portnahaven harbour still boasts a number of small boats. There must still be fish available however. If the tide is right, visitors today can have close encounters with Portnahaven's non-human residents: the seals who seem completely comfortable pulling themselves out onto the rocks in the centre of the narrow inlet.
Above the head of the harbour is Portnahaven Parish Church. White-painted like just about every other building in the area, it is particularly interesting for having two doors. It is said that one was used by residents of Portnahaven, and the other by the residents of Port Wemyss, which has never had its own church.
Portnahaven is home to a highly rated pub/restaurant, "An Tigh Seinnse", located on the north side of the inlet. There is also a post office, while in the upper part of the village is the the village hall and the Portnahaven Pottery. Near the last of these is a large corrugated-sided shed with some very faded white painted lettering still visible along its side: "MACBRAYNES". MacBraynes used to operate buses on some Scottish islands, and it is tempting to wonder whether this building was once a bus depot.
Portnahaven can be a quiet place outside the main season, when the many old fishing cottages converted into holiday homes are not in use. But whenever you visit you find a wonderful atmosphere and a stunning location. There is nothing more relaxing than spending a little time simply watching the seals in the harbour watching you watching them...