Bowmore is the geographical and administrative centre of Islay as well as being its largest settlement. This extremely attractive village occupies a site that rises from the south-eastern shore of Loch Indaal, and which, as a result, offers some fine views over the loch and beyond it to the wide open spaces of north-west Islay.
Today's visitor from Bridgend and the northern part of the island will approach Bowmore along the twisty A846. This sticks close to the shore of Loch Indaal and as it nears Bowmore passes the Columba Centre, an old hospital beautifully converted in 2002 to serve as a Gaelic college and community centre (and which has an excellent cafe). As you enter the village from this direction it becomes Shore Street, sheltered from the loch by the buildings on its north-western side, which back onto the water.
Shore Street emerges at the crossroads which stands at the heart of Bowmore. If you are following the main road towards Port Ellen you simply continue round to the left and begin the climb up the broad Main Street, which runs directly up the hill towards the Round Church or the Kilarrow Parish Church. The church occupies a prime location at the top of the hill from where it dominates much of the village. Its circular design is striking and extremely unusual, and gives it a very modern appearance. It is a surprise to discover it dates back to 1767, a year before much of the rest of the village. Folklore suggests that the circular design was intended to ensure there were no corners in which the devil could hide.
But let's return to the crossroads at the foot of the hill, which is overlooked by an attractive open square complete with a huge inlaid map of Islay and home to the island's main Tourist Information Centre. Following a short spur of Main Street in the other direction brings you to Bowmore's attractive harbour. Loch Indaal is shallow and the harbour here has never been accessible to large ships. Until the 1920s steamers from Glasgow loaded and unloaded cargo here using lighters, but no longer. These days the harbour is used primarily by pleasure craft and a couple of small fishing boats. In the second world war Loch Indaal's shallowness was less important than the shelter it provided for the Royal Air Force, who operated flying boats from Bowmore.
From the harbour you gain a fine view of Bowmore Distillery, which effectively occupies most of the land to the west of the junction in the centre of the village, and which dominates the lower part of Bowmore. Most sources tell you that Bowmore Distillery was founded in 1779, making it one of Scotland's oldest legal distilleries. In all probability it actually began distilling up to a decade earlier.
The importance of the distillery to the community is reflected in the Mactaggart Leisure Centre, which occupies an old bonded warehouse and whose swimming pool is heated by what would otherwise be waste heat from the distillery. Meanwhile, if you look past the distillery up School Street, you can see that the school is topped off with a decorative pagoda, reflecting the village's distilling tradition.
There has been a settlement on the site now occupied by Bowmore for many centuries, though it originally had the name of Laggan. "Bowmore" was made a burgh in 1614, and the name seems to come from the Gaelic for "place of the big house". The Bowmore you see today is largely a result of the development of a planned village on the site in the years following 1768 by Daniel Campbell of Shawfield and Islay, who at the time owned Islay in its entirety.
Until then the main centre of population in the area had been at Kilarrow, around what is now Bridgend. Campbell's development of Bowmore was not driven solely by altruistic motives. The new settlement was intended to generate increased rental income, and the main reason for clearing Kilarrow was to remove development from the area around Campbell's hereditary home, Islay House, and allow its gardens and grounds to be extended.