ISLAY is the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. Known as the “Queen of the Hebrides”, it lies in Argyll just south of Jura and around 40km north of the Irish coast.
The island’s capital and largest settlement is BOWMORE, where the distinctive round KILARROW PARISH CHURCH and a distillery are located. PORT ELLEN is the main port. ISLAY is the 5th largest Scottish island and the 7th largest island surrounding Great Britain, with a total area of almost 620sq.km. There is ample evidence of the pre-historic settlement of ISLAY, and the 1st written reference may have come in the 1st century AD.
Today, it has over 3,000 inhabitants and the main commercial activities are agriculture, malt whisky distillation and tourism. The island has a long history of religious observance, and Scottish Gaelic is spoken by about one-fourth of the population. Its landscapes have been celebrated through various art forms and there is a growing interest in “renewable energy”. It is also home to many bird species such as the wintering populations of Greenland white-fronted and barnacle goose and is a popular destination throughout the year for birdwatchers. The climate is mild.
Much of ISLAY remains owned by a few non-resident estate owners. Sheep farming and a few dairy cattle herds are run by “tenant farmers”. The island has some fine wild brown trout and salmon. Sea-angling is also popular, especially off the west coast and over the many shipwrecks around the coast. There are about 20 commercial boats with crab, lobster and scallop fishing undertaken from Port Ellen and Port Askaig. The waters are divine and the LAPHROAIG TRAIL makes a believer of life in an amber-hued glow with the serene vista as a steady companion.
ISLAY is one of the five whisky distilling regions in Scotland, whose identity is protected by law. There are 8 active distilleries, and the industry is the island’s 2nd largest employer after agriculture. Those on the south of the island produce malts with a very strong “peaty” flavour, considered to be the most intensely flavoured of all whiskies. The oldest record of a legal distillery, on the island, refers to BOWMORE in 1779, and at one time there were up to 23 distilleries in operation.
Some 45,000 summer visitors arrive each year by ferry and a further 11,000 by air. The main attractions are the scenery, history, bird watching and the world-famous whiskies. The distilleries operate various shops, tours and visitor centres and the FINLAGGAN TRUST has a visitor centre which is open daily during the summer.
ISLAY is home to many species of wildlife and is especially known for its birds. Winter-visiting barnacle goose numbers have reached 35,000 in recent years, with as many as 10,000 arriving in a single day. There are also up to 12,00 Greenland white-fronted geese and smaller numbers of brent pink-footed and Canada geese are often found amongst these flocks. Other waterfowl include whooper and swans, eider duck, long-tailed duck. The elusive Corncrake and Sanderling, ringed plover and sandpiper are summer visitors. Resident birds include red-billed chough, golden eagle, barn owl, peregrine falcon, raven, oyster catcher and guillemot. In all about 105 species breed on the island each year, and between 100 and 120 different species can be seen at any one time.
A population of several 1000 red deer inhabit the moors and hills. Fallow deer can be found in the southeast and roe deer are common on low-lying ground. Otters are common around the coast. The only snake, on ISLAY, is the adder and the common lizard is widespread, although not commonly seen.
The great CLAN DONALD chose well when they made the Isle of Islay the centrepiece of their Lordship of the Isles. Islay has always been blessed with nature’s bounty —— rich farmlands which, each autumn, witness hordes of geese arriving. PEAT is still cut from the moss-lands, which cover much of the interior, giving the unique flavour to the ISLAY MALTS ——– world-famous whiskies such as BOWMOOR, ARDBEG & LAPHROAIG. Most are still in production and welcome visitors to watch the production process and, even better, sample their delights.
ISLAY has a number of villages with terraces of small single-storey houses lining the shore. BOWMORE, Islay’s main town has a “unique, round Church” said to have been designed to ” ensure that evil spirits had no corner in which to hide”. Relics of a bygone age abound, with stone circles. carved stones and crosses, fine forts and castles and evidence of Bronze Age settlements.