Islay (Gaelic Ìle, say "eye-la") is an island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, famed for its collection of big name whisky distilleries - nine at the latest count and more coming. Islay is mostly low-lying, with Port Ellen and Bowmore its two main settlements. It's exposed to the Atlantic, with a mild climate and strong breezes, which help keep the midges at bay. In winter, fierce gales and storms are common, with disruption of transport.
You have to travel via Islay to reach the nearby Isle of Jura.
1 Islay Airport (ILY IATA). Loganair has two flights a day from Glasgow (GLA IATA) and one from Edinburgh (EDI IATA); these are in medium-sized turbo-props with a normal baggage allowance. Hebridean Air Services fly one day a week (Thursday at least to mid-Oct 2019) from Oban for £70-85 each way. This is a triangular route, with the morning flight continuing from Islay to Colonsay then back to Oban, while the afternoon flight goes to Colonsay then Islay then back to Oban. The aircraft are small BNF Islanders with 10 kg max baggage allowance. Islay airport terminal is very small, with toilets; one hour before flight suffices for check-in and security. Local car hire firms pick up and drop off at the airport, but you must book. The bus stops at the airport, see "Get around".
Calmac ferries sail from Kennacraig to two ports on Islay, both taking just over two hours and with return fares of £71 per car, £14 per passenger including driver (in summer 2020). April to Oct there's 2-3 sailings daily to both 2 Port Ellen and to 3 Port Askaig; in winter there are only one or two per day. Use the Port Askaig ferry to reach Jura. On Saturdays and summer Wednesdays this ferry continues to Colonsay.
The mainland port Kennacraig is near Tarbert on the Mull of Kintyre, a 3-hour drive from Glasgow. Citylink buses from Glasgow Buchanan station connect with some sailings and continue to Campbeltown near the Mull of Kintyre.
Kintyre Express is a ferry for foot passengers to Port Ellen from Ballycastle in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. This runs F-M in April and Sept, daily May-Aug. It sails from Ballycastle at 09:30, taking an hour and returning at 15:00, so a day trip is possible from Ireland but not from Islay. Adult fare is £60 single, £95 return, bikes are free.
Remember to wave to other road users, whether it be vehicle drivers, cyclists, or pedestrians.
Islay Coaches Bus 450 / 451 runs along the spine of the island from Ardbeg to Port Ellen, the airport, Bowmore and Bridgend then either east to Port Askaig, or west to Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte and Portnahaven. It runs M-F only, roughly hourly on the Port Ellen - Bowmore stretch, with the route varying slightly on schooldays.
Two companies on the island offer car hire:
- Islay Car Hire, ☏ , (mobile phone). Based at Bridgend, can pick up and drop off at ferry piers (but won't do one-day hires there) or airport. No dogs, bikes, sleeping or smoking in cars. Cars can be taken to Jura but not to the mainland. Small car from £45 per day.
- Cresswell Cars (formerly Mackenzies), ☏ . Office M-F 09:00-17:00, Sa 09:00-13:00. They do a meet & greet service for booking at airport & ferry piers. No dogs, bikes, smoking or sleeping in vehicles. You may take the car to Jura but not the mainland.
- Bicycle hire is available in Bowmore (next to the Post Office).
- Islay Cycles, Port Ellen, ☏ . From £15 per day.
Hitchhiking is easy and relatively safe on Islay.
Islay has a remarkable number of whisky distilleries dotted around its coast. Most date to the 19th century, though the tradition goes back to the 13th. One factor was the local barley, fresh peaty water and salt-sprayed environment conducive to good whisky. Another was the intricate coastline, so small ships could easily bring materials in and carry the whisky out, duty free if it was for export. (Their skippers would surely not be tempted, as soon as the sun set, to run the barrels ashore on some mainland beach?) Some distilleries have come and gone but there are nine as of 2019, with probably more on the way; they all offer tours, booking recommended, and have shops or visitor centres.
The reason for their expansion is a change in the interpretation of the law in 2009. It's illegal to distil your own spirits (of any kind) for personal consumption, but you're permitted under licence to set up a commercial distillery. That was held to mean a still of at least 1800 litres capacity, but in 2009 a legal case overthrew that minimum, and opened the door to micro-distilleries, which then popped up all over the UK but particularly in Scotland. Most of these produce gin, but that market was quickly over-saturated. Scotch whisky as a protected trade name has many extra rules and has to mature at least 3 years before it may be sold. So it's only in the 2010s that a slower second wave of Scotch distilleries began trading, hopefully on a more sustainable basis than the "boutique gin" fashion.
Three of the Islay distilleries - Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg - are connected by a footpath with each other and to Port Ellen, a 4-mile walk each way. The others are scattered around the island. See also Jura, which has one distillery.
- 1 Ardbeg Distillery, Port Ellen, PA42 7EA, ☏ . Apr-Oct: daily 09:30-17:00. Nov-Mar: M-F 09:30-17:00, Sa Su closed. Visitor centre, café, and distillery tours. Tours from £5.
- 2 Lagavulin Distillery, Port Ellen, PA42 7DZ, ☏ , ✉ Lagavulin.email@example.com. No café. The 16-year-old Lagavulin belongs like Caol Ila to the Classic Malts and is also owned by Diageo. If you join the Friends of the Classic Malts you get free access to the twelve Classic Malt distilleries (standard tour) including Lagavulin. Standard tour £6 (including one tasting and glass).
- 3 Laphroaig Distillery, Port Ellen, PA42 7DU, ☏ . Shop/visitor centre: Jan-Feb: M-F 09:45-16:30, Sa Su closed. Mar-Oct: daily 09:45-17:00. Nov-Dec: daily 09:45-16:30. No cafe, but free tea and coffee from an automatic machine. Nice lounge area adjacent to the tasting bar. Join the 'Friends of Laphroaig' (for free) and get a free 50 ml bottle. Tours from £6.
- 4 Bowmore Distillery, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Apr-Sep: M-Sa 09:00-17:00, Su 12:00-16:00. Oct-Mar: M-F 09:00-17:00, Sat 09:00-12:30 (tours only in Jan/Feb on Sa), Su closed. Visitor centre and distillery tours. 12-year-old Bowmore is one of the most popular Islay-Whiskies. Tours from £7.
- 5 Bunnahabhain Distillery, Port Askaig, PA46 7RP, ☏ . Apr-Oct: M-Sa 10:00-17:00, Su 11:00-16:00. Nov-Mar: M-Sa 10:00-16:00, Su 12:00-16:00. Tours from £7.
- 6 Ardnahoe Distillery, Port Askaig PA46 7RU (2 miles north of Port Askaig), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Daily 10:00-17:00. Opened in April 2019, so its products won't go on sale till 2022, but you can visit and sample the work in progress. Basic tour £10.
- 7 Caol Ila Distillery, Port Askaig, Isle of Islay, PA46 7RL, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Jan-Feb: Tu-Sa 10:00-16:00, Su M closed. Mar-Oct: daily 09:00-17:00. No tours in September. 12-year-old Caol Ila is one of 13 Classic Malts and owned by Diageo. If you join the Friends of the Classic Malts you get free access to the 12 Classic Malt distilleries (standard tour) including Coal Ila. Standard tour £6.
- 8 Bruichladdich Distillery, PA49 7UN, ☏ . Apr-Sep: daily. Oct-Mar: M-Sa, Su closed. Distillery producing whisky and gin. Tours from £5.
- 9 Kilchoman Distillery, Rockside Farm, Bruichladdich, PA49 7UT, ☏ . Visitor centre and cafe: Mar-Oct: daily 09:45-17:00. Nov-Feb: M-F 09:45-17:00, Sa Su closed. Tours offered on the same days. Farm distillery established in 2005. Visitor centre, tours and cafe. Standard tour £6 (1 hr, includes two tastings), other tours from £15.
- 10 Kildalton Cross, Kildalton, Port Ellen PA42 7EF (10 miles northeast of Port Ellen along shore road). Celtic high cross from 8th century AD, ornately carved, the finest of its kind. Plus medieval cross and ruined church.
- 11 Finlaggan, Finlaggan Farm Road (3 miles west of Port Askaig), ☏ . Visitor centre Apr-Oct M-Sa 10:30-16:15. Loch Finlaggan is a freshwater lake. At its north end are two islands which in the 13th-15th centuries were the seat of the Lord of the Isles, until rule passed to the King of Scotland. A visitor centre displays various artefacts of that era. A bridge links to Eilean Mòr ("the Big Island"), which can always be accessed even when the centre is closed. Here the main ruin is the castle (simply a fortified house), plus a medieval chapel and 16th-century graves. You can't routinely visit Eilean na Comhairle ("the Council Island"), which has the fragmentary remains of the Lords' council chambers. Adult £4.
- 12 The Oa (6 miles south-west of Port Ellen), ☏ . Always open. The rocky headland at the south tip of Islay. It's an RSPB nature reserve good for birdwatching (golden eagles are most active in spring and summer), and with two trails (one mile or two miles). The American Memorial, built 1920, is a stone tower commemorating the loss of two troopships nearby. In Feb 1918 the Tuscania was in convoy from the US to France when it was torpedoed and sank with the loss of 230 lives. Then in Oct 1918 the Otranto, carrying troops from New York to Glasgow, collided with another ship during a storm, and 400 lives were lost. Free (donations welcome).
- 13 Loch Gruinart, ☏ . Visitor centre daily 10:00-17:00. This is a sea loch; at its head are the Gruinart Flats wetland, an RSPB resrve. Great masses of barnacle geese roost here in winter; look out also for corncrakes, hen harriers and otters. The reserve is always open. There are two trails, the Woodland Trail (a mile) and the Moorland Trail (2 miles). You can cycle from Uiskentuie (on the A847) along the B8017 to the visitor centre, and then north to Ardnave, 7 miles each way. Free, donations welcome.
- 14 Museum of Islay Life, Daal Terr, Port Charlotte, PA48 7UA, ☏ . May-Sept M-Sa 10:30-16:30, Su 13:00-16:30; Apr & Oct M-F 10:30-16:30. Housed in the old Kilchoman Free Church, the museum has over 1600 items, spanning from the Mesolithic period 10,000 years ago till 1950. £4.
- McTaggart Leisure Centre, School Street, Bowmore PA43 7JS, ☏ . Tu-F 09:00-21:00, Sa Su 10:30-17:30. Use the swimming pool, sauna and gym.
- Kayak Wild Islay, Port Ellen, ☏ (mobile phone). Sea kayaking around the coastline of Islay. Based in Port Ellen, but tours from other points on Islay or Jura are possible on request. The half day is recommended for beginners. Full day £85, half day £60.
- You can sit on the beach at The Oa, and watch as Highland cows stroll past
- Islay Festival / Feis Ile has folk concerts, Gaelic lessons, whisky, ceilidhs, whisky, golf... um, did we mention whisky already? It's held in the last week of May: the next is F 22 - Sa 30 May 2020.
- Cantilena Festival is a chamber music festival held for a week in July. A permanent cadre of six professional musicians selects young musicians from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to join them for what will probably be their first extended tour. The next event is Su 5 - F 10 July 2020.
- Islay Half Marathon is held in early August. The route is a circle from Bowmore out to the airport then back, some gradients but no proper hills. The next event is probably on Sa 1 Aug 2020 but tbc.
- Islay Jazz Festival is held in September, multiple venues but often at the distilleries. The next event is F 13 - Su 15 Sept 2019.
- Islay Ale Brewery, Islay House Square, Bridgend, PA44 7NZ, ☏ . M-Sa 10:30-17:00. The only brewery on Islay. Producing real ales since 2004.
- Old Kiln Café, Port Ellen, PA42 7EA (at Ardbeg distillery). Apr-Oct daily 10:00-16:30, Nov-Mar M-F 10:00-16:30. Rustic cafe within Ardbeg distillery offers light meals.
- 1 Bridgend Hotel, Bridgend PA44 7PB. Daily 12:00-14:00 & 18:00-21:00. 3-star with rooms, but it's best known for its restaurant. The bar also does meals.
- 2 Taj Mahal, Shore Street, Bowmore. Daily 12:00-14:00 & 16:30-22:00. A good Indian restaurant in the centre of Bowmore. They don't serve alcohol, but you can bring your own. Cash only.
- Other options in Bowmore are the Chinese takeaway, Pizzeria, and "Cottage restaurant" lunchtime M-Sa.
- And see the Drink and Sleep listings.
- 1 An Tigh Seinnse, 11 Queen Street, Portnahaven PA47 7SJ. Daily 12:00-23:00. Cosy bar and restaurant serving local food. No dogs inside.
- In Port Ellen the Ardview Inn is open daily and serves meals. No 1 Charlotte St, the former White Hart Hotel, is now just a bar but plans to re-open for B&B.
- Wine from Islay? Yes, flavours include rhubarb and bramble, taste before you buy. Mis en bouteille at Mansfield Rd Port Ellen, open M-Sa 10:00-18:00.
- And see the hotels listed in "Sleep".
- Islay Hotel is by the ferry pier in Port Ellen, B&B double from £220.
- 1 The Harbour Inn, The Square, Bowmore, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Hotel owned by Bowmore Distillery with seven rooms as well as a restaurant and a cosy pub with good selection of whisky. Restaurant also open to non-residents, 07:30-10:00, 12:00-14:00 & 18:00-22:00. They also run several nearby self-catering cottages. B&B double £150.
- Bowmore B&Bs include the Lambeth and the Lochside Inn.
- 2 Ballygrant Inn, Ballygrant PA45 7QR (Halfway between Bridgend and Port Askaig), ☏ . Small hotel with bar and restaurant daily 19:00-21:00. Ten-min walk to Finlaggan. B&B double £180.
- Port Askaig Hotel, Port Askaig, PA46 7RD, ☏ . Right next to the ferry pier, this is one of the island's oldest inns, and feels it - needs refurbishment. No dogs. The pub does bar meals. B&B double £180.
- 3 Port Mor Centre, Port Charlotte PA48 7UE (Half a mile southwest of Port Charlotte), ☏ , (the cafe). Camping £9 ppn. Camp & caravan site open Mar-Nov. Licensed cafe is open daily 08:00-20:30, no dogs indoors.
- 4 Port Charlotte Youth Hostel, Port Charlotte PA48 7TX (Bus 450 stops outside), ☏ . Check-in: 17:00, check-out: 10:00. Hostel open Mar-Sep in old whisky warehouse. 30 beds with good common room facilities, free wifi. The well-equipped kitchen is locked between 10:00 and 14:00. Dorm £21 ppn, 4-person private room £90.
- 5 Port Charlotte Hotel, Main Street, Port Charlotte PA48 7TU, ☏ . Comfy hotel, does good bar meals and often has live traditional music on Wednesday and Sunday evenings. There is a beer garden at the back. Excellent selection of whisky, but establish the price first (especially if they're coy about it) - it could be £50 a shot. B&B double £180.
- Lochindaal Hotel in Port Charlotte has accommodation in four adjacent converted cottages.
- Self-catering cottages are dotted all over Islay. They're usually rented by the week, expect to pay £400 or more for that.
Islay is a pretty safe place and any crime here is likely to be big news.
- Isle of Jura — a 5-min ferry trip from Port Askaig, but then a long lonely road, you need a car. Jura has a distillery, an attractive walled garden, and lots of walks. It's an easy day-trip.
- Colonsay — the ferries from Kennacraig to Port Askaig continue to Colonsay Apr-Oct on Weds and Sats, taking 70 min. A day-trip is possible with six hours on Colonsay, as the ferry sails on to Oban then turns around and retraces its route. Nov-March there's still a connection once or twice a week, but only one sailing so a day-trip isn't possible.
- Otherwise it's back to the mainland of Argyll, but there are other islands within reach. A short drive from Kennacraig brings you to Claonaig, which has a ferry to Arran. Or continue south for the short crossing from Tayinloan to Gigha.