Wednesday, 30 January 2013


It cannot fail to escape the notice of visitors to Islay that the island is "whisky central", with no fewer than eight distilleries on the island. The reason for the emergence of this sector of the local economy is quite simple: the abundance of the main ingredients, barley and soft water, plus the ready availability of peat to fuel the stills and dry the malted barley. In the early days, the island's distilling was carried out "informally" - that is to say illicitly. The island's cliffs are dotted with caves where the twin activities of illegal distilling and smuggling were carried out. The first legal distillery was founded in 1779 here in Bowmore, the island's main settlement and its administrative capital, its white buildings gracing the lochside.

Members of the landed gentry in 18th century Scotland were not averse to uprooting the local inhabitants and moving them to a new location if it suited their purposes to do so, and the local laird in these parts was no exception. He allegedly decided that the village of Kilarrow was too close to his residence for comfort, so the villagers were moved to Bowmore, which was established in 1768 as a replacement for Kilarrow, and which is a typical example of a planned village with streets laid out in a grid pattern. The most striking sight in Bowmore is the Round Church, a whitewashed building which, as its name suggests, is built in a round shape, the thinking being that this way there would be no corners for the devil to hide in. There is a pier on the lochside, and during World War II there was a sea plane base from which Sunderland and Catalina flying boats operated. As well as a range of restaurants and places to stay, visitors will find Islay's only Tourist Information Office in Bowmore.

Map of the area.

© 2004 Eberhard Kaiser, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 27 January 2013


On the east side of the Rhinns of Islay and facing Loch Indaal is the attractive little village of Port Charlotte, named after the mother of the person who founded the village in 1828, Walter Frederick Campbell. It is the whisky trade for which Islay is so famous that is responsible for the existence of the village, since it was built to house the workers at the Lochindaal Distillery which opened the year after the founding of the village. The distillery is no longer there, but there is another one a couple of miles up the coast at Bruichladdich. Points of interest for visitors to the town include the Islay Natural History Trust, colocated with the Youth Hostel, with information on the island's flora, fauna and geology, and the Museum Of Islay Life, which, as well as books and items illustrating the island's heritage, also displays items from some of the many shipwrecks which have occurred off the island's coast, which include the Tuscania and the Otranto, two American ships which foundered within eight months of each other during the First World War as they were bringing troops over to Europe.

Map of the area.

© 2008 Gordon Hatton, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 24 January 2013


The tiny villages of Portnahaven and Port Wemyss, located at the end of the peninsula known as the Rhinns of Islay, are close enough together to be almost one community, in fact they share a church between them. The church, a small, rectangular building dating from 1828, has two doors at its front, and it is said that at one time the worshippers from Portnahaven had exclusive use of one of the doors and those from Port Wemyss the other. Portnahaven was built as a planned village to house people being cleared from the island's interior, with an economy based around crofting and fishing. The village was ideally suited to the latter, since the island of Orsay which lies opposite the village provides shelter from the capricious ocean beyond as well as providing a warning to approaching vessels with its tall lighthouse, which dominates the horizon for miles around. The sheltered harbour at Portnahaven is also favoured by Grey Seals, who can often be seen sunning themselves on the rocks in the bay. About two kilometers north-northwest of Portnahaven is a headland called Rubha Na Faing, and just offshore is a group of islands called Frenchmen's Rocks, named after a battle which took place here with three British frigates in which three French ships were driven onto the rocks. This spot is also a treasure trove of birdlife, including shearwaters, petrels, gannets and auks, best seen in autumn. At nearby Claddach is the "Islay LIMPET" (Land Installed Marine Power Energy Transmitter), an installation which has the distinction of being the world's first commercial wave power generator, putting it at the forefront of renewable energy technology.

Map of the area.

Photo by Peter Church, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 21 January 2013


The 2 kilometers of fine sand which fringes Machir Bay is one of Islay's most beautiful beaches. Machir Bay is also the name of one of Islay's whiskies, recently released by the Kilchoman Distillery. The bay is a great place to walk, for example following the track towards Kilchiaran Bay to the south, which takes in an Iron Age fort. A climb up to the fort is well worth it for the magnificent view of the bay from the site. Machir Bay is also a perfect place for viewing the legendary sunsets in this part of Scotland. Bathing, however, is not recommended due to the strong currents in the bay.

Kilchiaran Bay is the next bay along, and besides the above-mentioned fort there are a couple of other historical sites. The ruined Kilchiaran Chapel, dating from at least the early 13th century, consists of a rectangle of low walls with the roof gone. The grounds of the chapel include a broken stone font and a number of grave slabs, some with intricate designs carved into them. Also in the area is the Cultoon Stone Circle, believed to have been abandoned before completion, and to have had an astronomical purpose, as two of the stones were aligned to show the position of sunset at the Winter Solstice. Only three of the stones are still standing. There was once an RAF base at Kilchiaran, and during the Cold War a ROTOR radar station was installed there, part of a 1950s government scheme to counter attack by Soviet bombers. Activity at the station was short-lived as it ended service in 1958, but the rather ugly, light brown buildings remain as a reminder of those paranoid times.

of the area.

© 2008 Mary and Angus Hogg, via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 18 January 2013


The main draw at Loch Gruinart is the RSPB Reserve, which in winter sees huge numbers of geese, such as barnacle geese. In Spring it is waders who take centre stage, including Redshanks. The elusive corncrake can also be found here. The loch has in the past been voted one of the best places for wildlife in the United Kingdom. The name Gruinart derives from the Old Norse meaning "shallow fjord". The ruined Kilnave Chapel lies on the shore of Loch Gruinart, and is believed to have been built around the late 1300s or early 1400s. Its tranquil location belies the fact that it was the scene of a particularly bloody battle between Clan MacDonald and the MacLeans of Duart (Mull). As was so often the case, the battle was fought over land rights. The MacLeans came off worse as although a number of survivors were able to return to their boats, around 30 retreated to the chapel, where they were burned alive when the MacDonalds set fire to the thatched roof.

Map of the area.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013


For those making the short crossing from Jura across the Sound of Islay, Port Askaig is the gateway to Islay, though by no means its largest settlement. There are also ferry links from Port Askaig to the mainland and to Colonsay. There is a quite extensive history of the island's ferries on its tourism website. The port enjoys wonderful views of the Paps of Jura from across the narrow strait, all the better when there is a decent sunset, with the Paps silhouetted against the sun and the water glistening. One of the things Islay is best known for is its distilleries; there are eight of them on the island, and the one nearest Port Askraig is the Caol Ila Distillery in a little cove just to the north. Just inland from Port Askaig is the important historic site of Finlaggan, seat of the Lords Of The Isles and the Clan Donald. Loch Finlaggan and the islands of Eilean Mor and Eilean na Comhairle were the nerve centre of the Lords' Administration from the 13th to the 15th centuries. A cottage has been converted into a museum which is run by the Finlaggan Trust, and the ruins of Finlaggan Castle, built in the 13th century, lie on Eilean Mor.

Map of the area.

© 2004 Dorcas Sinclair, via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, 12 January 2013


I first caught sight of Jura while on the west coast of Scotland a few years ago. What drew my eye was the Paps of Jura, the trio of conical mountains which dominate the island. They made a beautiful, but strangely forbidding sight. Though rising steeply, the Paps can be climbed, rewarding those who do so with wonderful views on a clear day. The island of Jura, with an area of 142 square miles and a population of less than 200, making it one of the least densely populated Scottish islands, has just one road, largely following the east coast, before curving round to meet up with the ferry crossing to Islay in the south-west. The main settlement is Craighouse, in a sheltered spot on the east coast, where the island's only pub is to be found. Needless to say, such a sparsely populated island is rich in wildlife. Out at sea there are sea otters and seals, while the burns and lochs are rich in salmon and brown trout. Birdlife includes Arctic skua, waxwings and raptors including the Golden Eagle. The island's outdoor pursuits include deerstalking, as there are around 5,000 deer on the island. Garden enthusiasts should head for Jura House, built by the Campbells of Jura, where there is a Walled Garden. Whisky fans are also catered for, courtesy of the Jura Distillery at Craighouse. Between Jura and the uninhabited island of Scarba to the north is the Gulf of Corryvreckan where the notorious phenomenon known as the Corryvreckan whirlpool is to be found. This is an extreme tidal race brought about by the combination of the underwater topography and the strong currents in these waters.

One of the most notable past residents on the island was Lady Astor, the first woman to sit in Parliament. She had an isolated study on the island where she went to write. The 20,000-acre Tarbert Estate on Jura is owned by the Astor family. The writer George Orwell lived on Jura between 1946 and 1949, and only left due to ill health: he died of tuberculosis in 1950. It was during his sojourn on Jura that he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. One wonders what inspiration he could have drawn for such a horrific tale from such beautiful surroundings. As for musical connections the island provided inspiration for the Scottish band Capercaillie, who wrote The Bens of Jura, a love song featuring the island. In January 2011 an album recorded on Jura called Poets and Lighthouses by a singer called Albert Kuvezin from Tuva, Central Asia, reached number one in the European World Music Charts.

Map of the area.

Feolin Ferry © 2008 Mary and Angus Hogg, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 9 January 2013


Life can be precarious for a small, remote island such as Colonsay in these difficult economic times. With their already limited facilities, such communities face the ever-present threat of losing what little they have. In the case of Colonsay, the islanders were up against the distressing prospect of losing their only pub over the Christmas period, as the hotel it forms part of had decided to close for the winter, it not being viable to stay open. However, the islanders took matters into their own hands, and by clubbing together to pay a rent for the premises managed to keep the pub open. Experienced bar staff provided training for those who would perform bar and catering duties. Had this not happened, the nearest pub would have been two and a half hours away by ferry in Oban!

Colonsay and Oronsay are sometimes joined by a beach known as The Strand, and sometimes separated, depending on the tide. In spite of their small size, they manage to pack in a host of attractions for their visitors: empty white beaches such as that at Kiloran Bay for the walkers and surfers, seal colonies, wild goats, corncrakes and golden eagles for the wildlife watchers, standing stones for lovers of ancient history. Added to which, like Tiree, they enjoy high sunshine levels, which explains the presence of the palm trees and rhododendrons of Colonsay House Gardens. Even golfers are catered for, courtesy of the Colonsay Golf Club. Oronsay was one of the places visited by St Columba on his way to Iona, and there is a ruined 13th century priory on the island whose features include tombstones with the carved portraits of priests and warriors. Colonsay is reachable from the mainland by ferry or by air. Visitors arriving by ferry can visit the island's heritage centre right where they alight, as it is situated in the old waiting room of the ferry terminal at Scalasaig. For such a small community - barely more than 100 inhabitants - there is a surprising amount going on. For a list of events, follow this link.

Map of the area.

Kiloran Bay © 2009 C Michael Hogan, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 6 January 2013


Tiree is the westernmost of the islands of the Inner Hebrides, and has a reputation for being the sunniest spot hereabouts. The island's land mass covers 7,834 hectares, its population is around 800, and its highest point is Ben Hynish at 141 metres. Its beautiful pale beaches are a magnet for surfers and windsurfers, and one of the big events of the year is the Tiree Wave Classic, the longest standing windsurfing event on the British calendar. The island's physical attributes mean that tourism and crofting are the biggest sources of income. Access to the island is by ferry from Oban, with a daily service to the port of Scarinish. The name of the island derives from the gaelic "tir iodh", or "land of the corn", possibly a reference to the days of St Columba, when Tiree provided the monastic community on Iona with grain. Tiree played an important role during World War II when a large RAF station was built on the island; this subsequently became Tiree Airport in 1947. The island also hosted a number of RAF chain home radar stations. The Hynish Centre on Tiree is a visitor facility with accommodation based around Alan Stevenson House, built in honour of the famous lighthouse engineer. The island's past is explained at the Sandaig Island Life Museum. Wildlife enthusiasts should head for Kenavara, which is a breeding ground for the island's main seabird colony, and is home to birds such as shags, fulmars and kittiwakes.

Map of the area.

© 2010 Milady G, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 3 January 2013


The tiny island of Coll - 13 miles long by up to 4 miles wide - is prized as a totally unspoilt, tranquil place for a holiday. However, the island has not always been so peaceful. The history of the highlands and islands is peppered with accounts of clan warfare, mostly involving one clan pitted against another, but on Coll a particularly bloodthirsty battle took place in 1590 between two branches of the same clan when the MacLeans from Duart invaded Coll in a bid to take possession of the island from the Coll branch of the MacLeans. The battle took place at Breachacha Castle (a private home and therefore not open to the public), where there is a stream which is still known as the "stream of the heads", a gruesome reminder of the fate of the Duart MacLeans whose cousins decapitated them and threw their heads in the stream. There are actually two Breachacha Castles on Coll: the old 14th century castle where the battle took place, and a newer 18th century residence nearby. Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell visited the newer castle during their tour of the Hebrides in 1773, at a time when it was the family seat of the Laird of Coll. In his account* of the visit, Boswell was quite charitable about the castle, describing it as "a neat new-built gentleman's house". However, Johnson's take on the castle was somewhat different, as he remarked to Boswell that "there was nothing becoming a chief about it: it was a mere tradesman's box".

Coll has been inhabited since mesolithic times. Prior to the MacLeans taking over, the island was ruled by Vikings. Legend has it that there was a fortress on a crannog, or artificial island, called Dun Amhlaidh which was held by a Norse chieftain. The chieftain was defeated in battle by the MacLeans. The current population is around 200, but it peaked at 1,500 before the Highland Clearances, which resulted in the dispersal of islanders to countries such as Canada. For visitors to the island there is little to do other than walking and wildlife watching. There is an RSPB reserve in the west part of the island whose inhabitants include the rare and elusive corncrake, along with lapwings, redshanks, barnacle geese and white-fronted geese.

* Journal Of A Tour To The Hebrides, by James Boswell, first published in 1785.

Map of the island.

The Breachacha Castles © 2008 Gordon Brown, via Wikimedia Commons