The Isle of Islay is the most southerly of the Hebrides. It measures about 25 miles from north to south by 20 miles from east to west, and forms an irregular shape that defies easy description. Much of the east side of the island is remote, inaccessible and hilly, and Islay has a high point of 491m or 1610ft at Beinn Bheigier. At its nearest approach Islay is separated from the Mull of Kintyre by 15 miles of sea, while to its north-east is the Isle of Jura, separated from Islay by the half mile wide Sound of Islay.
Most of the population of the island, which stood at 3,457 in 2001, lives in a series of distinct settlements which are mainly found in coastal locations. At its peak in 1841 the population of Islay stood at 15,772, but as a result of clearance and emigration it had halved by the end of the century, and it then halved again by 1961. The population has continued to decline since then, but only relatively slowly.
Islay is known around the world as home to no fewer than eight Scotch whisky distilleries, while a number of others that used to exist no longer do so. The distilleries were established to take advantage of the island's ability to produce significant quantities of barley; because of the softness of its water; and because of the abundant supplies of peat needed during the malting process, as a result of which Islay whiskies tend to be known for their peaty flavour. Today the distilleries are collectively the second largest source of employment on Islay. The largest is tourism, and many of the tourists who visit the island are drawn here by the presence of the distilleries.
Visitors usually reach Islay via the car ferry which operates from Kennacraig on the mainland to the island's ferry terminals at Port Askaig and Port Ellen. Meanwhile, Islay Airport offers regular flights to and from Glasgow.
Port Ellen, on the south coast of the island, is the second largest settlement in terms of population and wraps around two bays separated by the busy harbour, from where you can catch the ferry to the mainland. The village was founded in 1821 by Walter Frederick Campbell, Laird of Islay, who named it after his first wife Eleanor. Overlooking the more southerly of the two bays is St John's Church.
A road heads east along the coast of Islay from Port Ellen. This provides access to three of the island's distilleries, Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. Each has its own distinct character. Laphroaig is one of three distilleries on the island (and only six in Scotland) to still have its own floor maltings; Lagavulin looks across a bay to the imposing ruin of Dunyvaig Castle, once a stronghold of the Lords of the Isles, while Ardbeg enjoys an incredibly photogenic location and offers visitors a superb cafe. Four miles along the single track road beyond Ardbeg is the magnificent Kildalton Cross with a ruined church and a number of fascinating grave slabs.
Heading west from Port Ellen takes you along a minor road over the Mull of Oa, past the ruined chapel beside Kilnaughton Bay. A walk of a little under a mile from the end of the road across the Mull of Oa, brings you to the American Monument, erected to commemorate the loss of hundreds of US sailors killed when two ships were sunk nearby off Islay in 1918. North from Port Ellen, two roads cross a broad peaty hinterland. The "high road" is single track and leads to Bridgend, the hub of the island. The "low road" sticks closer to the shore of Laggan Bay, and is wider, and dead straight for nearly seven miles, but it is also very bumpy as it floats on peat. This road passes Islay Airport en route to the island's capital, the village of Bowmore.
Bowmore looks out over Loch Indaal, a broad and shallow sea loch biting deeply into the west side of Islay. The village has a great deal of character, and is dominated by the circular Round Church at the top of the hill which looks down the length of the village's main street, and by the white painted Bowmore Distillery near the harbour: another distillery that has its own maltings on the premises.
Following the road around the shore of Loch Indaal brings you to the small settlement of Bridgend, where the island's main roads all meet. Concealed by woods to the north is Islay House, the traditional home of the Campbells of Islay. Nearby is Islay House Square, home to a number of interesting craft businesses and their shops, and to Islay Ales, the island's only brewery. If you head east from Bridgend you pass through Islay's only significant inland settlement, Ballygrant. Close by is Finlaggan, a loch and islands which formed the administrative heart of the medieval Lordship of the Isles.
This road concludes at Port Askaig, the second port of call for the car ferry to the mainland, and in recent years has seen major engineering works that have involved the removal of the hillside behind the village to make room for more ferry parking. Port Askaig is also the terminus for the smaller ferry across the Sound of Islay to Jura. Reached by minor roads on the shore of the Sound of Islay north of Port Askaig are two distilleries, Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain.
Back at Bridgend, another roads leads west then south-west around the shore of Loch Indaal. This passes Bruichladdich Distillery and St Kiaran's Church en route to Port Charlotte, founded in 1828 by Walter Frederick Campbell and named after his mother. This attractive village is home to the Museum of Islay Life and the Natural History Visitor Centre. The road beyond Port Charlotte leads you south-west to the island's most westerly point, and the twin villages of Portnahaven and Port Wemyss, which share an outlook over the island of Orsay and its lighthouse. Here you find Portnahaven Parish Church.
North western Islay offers more scope for exploring beyond the main roads than most of the island. A loop of minor road from Portnahaven to Port Charlotte passes the fascinating ruined chapel at Kilchiaran. Further north is Kilchoman. This is home to Kilchoman Distillery, the only distillery in Scotland which does everything from growing (at least some of) the barley it uses to bottling the product in the same place. Nearby is the ruined Kilchoman Church, with a beautiful carved cross in the churchyard, while another almost fallen carved cross stands in a nearby field close to a military cemetery.
Loch Gruinart is a sandy sea loch which bites deeply into the north coast of Islay. At its head is the excellent Loch Gruinart Nature Reserve, run by the RSPB. Overlooking the loch a little further north is Kilnave Chapel and Cross: a truly beautiful location with a rather grisly history.
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