Port Ellen is the only significant settlement on Islay's south coast and provides the island's main deep water harbour. It originally developed around the well sheltered Loch Leòdamais, though over the years grew along the coast to the north to occupy the east side of the broader Kilnaughton Bay. The two bays are separated by Rhuba Glas, a rocky promontory which is now home to Port Ellen's harbour facilities.
Port Ellen was founded in 1821 by Walter Frederick Campbell, then Laird of Islay, and was named after his first wife Eleanor. Today's Port Ellen is one of two ferry terminals on the island: the other is at Port Askaig, in the north-east of the island. It is also Islay's second largest settlement, being only marginally smaller than Bowmore.
Port Ellen's early growth owed much to the whisky industry. Port Ellen Distillery was established on the shore a little to the north of the village in 1825. It closed in 1927, but was rebuilt with additional stills and reopened in 1967.
It closed for a second time in 1983, and the legend "PORT ELLEN" remained visible in large black letters on the white bonded warehouses. In late 2019 plans were approved to build a new still house and visitor centre and bring Port Ellen Distillery back into production.
Port Ellen distillery was only one of an amazing number of distilleries which developed in the immediate area during the early 1800s. Today the three miles of road along the south coast of Islay to the east of Port Ellen is home to three working distilleries, Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. It is difficult to believe, but in the 1800s there were three more distilleries in operation along the same short stretch of coastline: Ardenistiel Distillery, which stood between Port Ellen and Laphroaig; Malt Mill Distillery, which operated on the site of what is now part of Lagavulin; and Ardmore Distillery, which also occupied part of the site on which Lagavulin now operates.
Although Port Ellen Distillery closed in 1983, its near neighbour, Port Ellen Maltings, continues to benefit from the boom in demand for Scotch whisky. This was built in 1973 at a time when many distilleries were closing their own traditional maltings. Today it dominates the skyline at the north end of Port Ellen and supplies malted barley to most of the distilleries on Islay and Jura. even those who also have their own traditional maltings.
Port Ellen comes with a range of visitor services, including shops and a range of places to eat and stay. Overlooking the more enclosed bay of Loch Leòdamais is St John's Church. The combination of beaches and bays with an active harbour and rows of white and pastel coloured cottages and houses make Port Ellen an exceptionally photogenic place. What is quite interesting is that for much of its length, the village is just a single street deep.
The wider area has much to offer. Overlooking Lagavulin Bay and its distillery are the ruined remains of Dunyvaig Castle. This was a fortress of the MacDonald Lords of the Isles before James IV asserted his authority in 1493. In later life it was besieged and captured in 1612, 1615 and (twice) in 1647. It was largely demolished by the Campbell lairds of Islay when they moved to more modern accommodation in Islay House in 1677. Four miles beyond Ardbeg Distillery 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 largely deserted 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 hundreds of US servicemen killed when two ships were lost off Islay in 1918.