Islay is an island with a highly irregular shape that defies easy description. It does, however, have a very obvious centre: Bridgend at the head of Loch Indaal. Just about every visitor to Islay will find themselves in Bridgend sooner or later (probably sooner) as it stands at the focal point of the island's road network.
From a junction on the north side of the village the A846 heads north-east through Ballygrant to Port Askaig, while the A847 heads around the northern side of Loch Indaal to Port Charlotte and beyond. Meanwhile the A846 heads south-west along the shore of Loch Indaal to Bowmore, and then continues beyond it to form the "low road" to Port Ellen and the south of the island. Port Ellen can also be accessed using the single track B8016 "high road" which heads directly south from Bridgend.
The "high road" was not always appreciated by travellers. Whisky writer Alfred Barnard travelled from Port Ellen to what he describes as "the well cultivated policies and rural retreats which form the aristocratic village of Bridgend" during a tour of the island's distilleries in 1886. The coach drive, clearly along what is now known as the "high road", was "one of the most uninteresting that we had ever experienced", and took four hours to cover around 11 miles. Having stayed at a hotel called "Beul-an-ath" he visited Bowmore Distillery the following morning.
Beul an Atha is the Gaelic name for Bridgend and translates as "mouth of the ford": like the "bridge" in Bridgend, this owes its origin to the location of the village, close to where the River Sorn flows into Loch Indaal, and where the river is bridged today and was forded in an earlier era.
Until the 1760s, what is now Bridgend was a much larger settlement than it is today, though at the time it was known as Kilarrow. The story of its demise revolves around the presence, just to its north, of Islay House. This was built in 1677 by the Campbells of Islay, hereditary owners and lairds of Islay. Originally known as Kilarrow House it was enlarged by the Campbells in the 1730s and again in the 1760s. As the family fortunes grew, so did their ambitions for their house. There was a problem, however: the surrounding grounds and gardens were tightly constrained by the presence of the village of Kilarrow.
Daniel Campbell of Shawfield and Islay solved the problem in 1768 by instigating a major planned expansion of what had until then been the much smaller settlement of Bowmore, three miles around the shore of Loch Indaal. Residents of Kilarrow were moved to Bowmore and their previous homes demolished to allow an improved landscape for Islay House. All that really remains of the old settlement is Kilarrow Cemetery, between Islay House and its steadings. Islay House saw further development in the 1840s and in the early 1900s.
In one sense the local community has regained some of what was lost in 1768. The enormous old walled garden of Islay House is now worked as a community garden, while Islay House Square, once the estate buildings and the steadings for Islay House, is now home to a range of businesses, many run by local craftspeople. These include a gallery and a chocolate maker, as well as Elizabeth Sykes Batiks and Islay Ales, the island's only brewery.
Bridgend itself lies a short distance to the south and offers a range of facilities to those passing by. These include the Bridgend Hotel, which although he gave it a different name is where Alfred Barnard stayed the night before his visit to Bowmore. Opposite is a popular shop which also has a fuel pump nearby, and the village has a bowling green and a putting course. Overlooking this part of the village is a memorial to Dr Archibald McArthur erected "by the people of Islay" after his death on 18 June 1909.