A Guide To: The Isle of Islay

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The Out About Scotland complete guide to The Isle of Islay

What’s this attraction all about?

The Isle of Islay is one of the larger West Coast islands and is known by most island folk as the Queen of the Hebrides, a title that’s been passed through the generations over hundreds of years. If you take the time to visit this beautiful island you’ll soon discover why this name is so perfectly apt.

Islay is the southernmost island in the Southern Hebrides and hosts over 3000 islanders, with much of the workforce occupied in the fishing, agriculture, tourism and whisky-distilling industries. The latter is probably the most famous employer on the island and for such a small land mass it’s amazing to think that eight working distilleries operate daily, churning out high-quality whisky for consumption all around the world.



What can you do there?

Whisky isn’t the only thing worth visiting the Isle of Islay for. There are beautiful beaches galore on this little slice of west-coast heaven and you’ll frequently find wide open expanses of white sandy beaches lapped by a crystal-clear sea with barely another soul to be seen. You really will struggle to find anywhere else quite like it.

As the fifth largest island in the whole of Scotland, and covering 239 square miles, Islay has plenty of space to explore and there are lots of species of native wildlife for birdwatchers and holidaymakers to enjoy. The rugged east coast is especially interesting for lovers of coastlines as it rises steeply from the Sound of Islay up to the mountain of Beinn Bheigier, at a height of 491 metres.

The Southern coast of Islay is relatively wooded compared to the rest of the island and there are some spectacular areas to explore, including Claggain Bay and the stunning wide-open peninsula known as The Oa.

The Islanders generally live in the villages from which most of the distilleries take their name, so if you’re a lover of Bowmore, Port Charlotte, Port Askaig and Port Ellen, you’d be well advised to take a walk around their namesake hamlets.

Pretty much all villages on Islay are a walk back in time, with quaint, quiet high streets and plenty of interesting walks to be found.  Bowmore is especially interesting, and a visit there simply isn’t complete without a visit to their famous distillery and tasting room overlooking the seashore. It’s a great place to lose yourself in the history of the west coast islands for a few hours.



Islay is one of the five whisky distilling regions in Scotland which has its identity protected by law. Even the word whisky is protected, with all other distillers in the world having to use a different spelling, which is why you’ll always find American and Irish spirits labelled as whiskey (note the letter e). Due to the use of Islay peat in the distilling process, malts produced on the island have a very distinctive, smoky flavour that’s world-renowned for being one of the most intense whisky tastes available

The oldest distillery on the island is in the village of Bowmore which is recorded as being founded in 1779, and production on the island became so popular that at one time there were 23 distilleries in operation, although most of these have now closed their doors for business. Most of the remaining distilleries have guided tours available where for a small fee you’ll get shown the entire distilling process before getting a sample or two to try yourself. There are also some excellent cafes and gift shops in the distillery complexes.



Along with tourism for Islays beautiful beaches and distilleries, the isle draws in thousands of birdwatchers each year who come to view the vast annual migrations. One of the biggest flocks that come to the island is the Barnacle Goose, whose numbers swell to around 35,000 birds in winter and there have been reports that 10,000 birds were recorded flying onto the island in just one day! There are countless species that call Islay their home and around 100 different types breed on the island each year, with between 100 to 200 species living there at any one time.

There are also several thousand deer, otters, whales, seals, lizards and a vast variety of flora and fauna to see. Islay is basically a wildlife-lovers idea of heaven, and it’s highly recommended if you want to explore the west coast islands.


The history of the attraction

Due to its close proximity, Islay has strong links to Ireland that stretches back thousands of years with many place names deriving from the Irish Gaelic language. Indeed, from the 6th century AD Islay was considered to lie within the Irish kingdom of Dal Riata, although by the 9th century the Irish influence was starting to be replaced by Norse settlers who at the time were expanding their lands beyond Scandinavia.

From the 9th century until the 12th century Islay was ruled by kings of mostly Norse origin, with the most famous being Godfred Crovan, the fierce and much-feared warrior who was the King of Dublin until his eventual death on Islay in 1095.

His death was significant because it marked the point where the population of Islay finally resisted the Norse rulers, culminating in the battle of Largs in 1263. Shortly thereafter the Norwegian king handed over the authority of the Southern Hebrides to the Scottish King Alexander 3rd, and the Isle of Islay has remained under Scottish rule ever since.


What I liked about this attraction

  • Islay is beautiful
  • It’s a whisky-lovers paradise
  • There are loads of things to do and see

What I didn’t like about this attraction

  • It’s quite ‘touristy’ in the towns and distilleries
  • Some food and drink prices are a bit inflated in my opinion

Getting there

The Isle of Islay lies in Argyll just south-west of Jura, and only 25 miles north of the Irish Coast. The island can be visited by air and by sea.

For airfares and times, contact Flybe

For ferry prices and times contact Caledonian MacBrayne

Get Directions

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Contact details

Website: Islay Info




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Craig Smith

Craig Smith is your guide to the best attractions in Scotland. He loves exploring the Scottish wilds and is happiest when he's knee-deep in a muddy bog in the middle of nowhere.

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