The Complete Guide to Visiting the Isle of Islay

Last updated on September 28th, 2020


The Isle of Islay on the west coast

The Isle of Islay is one of the larger West Coast islands located within the Southern Hebrides. Islay is a popular tourist destination thanks to its diverse wildlife, attractive country villages and stunning coastline, but it’s most famous for the distinctive whisky that’s flavoured with locally-sourced peat.

Category: Island

Suitable for ages: 5 to 10 years, 11 to 18 years, 18+ years, 65+ years

Ideal for: Couples, Families, Groups, Solo travellers

I rate it: 10 out of 10

Isle of Islay

About the Isle of Islay

The Isle of Islay is one of the largest west-coast Scottish islands and has the nickname ‘The Queen of the Hebrides’ – a title that’s been passed down the generations for hundreds of years by the proud people who live there.

I can honestly say it’s a great place to visit having been there on numerous occasions, and I truly believe its nickname perfectly sums up the place.

There’s a lot more to the island than the distilleries that have made it so famous though, so I’ll give you a quick overview before covering its best features in detail.

Isle of Islay

Islay is the southernmost island in the Southern Hebrides and is home to over 3000 people, with much of the workforce occupied in the fishing, agriculture, tourism and whisky-distilling industries.

The latter is easily the biggest employer and for such a small island it’s amazing to think that nine working distilleries operate daily, churning out high-quality whisky for consumption around the world.

Unlike other wind-battered islands like Tiree, you’ll find that Islay has lots of woodland to enjoy in addition to beautiful beaches and quaint villages, and there’s a surprising amount of wildlife to see if you explore the rugged coastline that surrounds it.

This mixture of natural beauty and world-class whisky draws tens of thousands of holiday-makers annually, and having spent so much time there myself I’ve got no problem rating it equally against Skye and Mull.

Isle of Islay

Things to do on the Isle of Islay

Whisky isn’t the only thing worth visiting 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 crystal-clear sea with barely another soul to be seen. You really will struggle to find anywhere else quite like it.

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As the fifth-largest island in Scotland covering 239 square miles, Islay has plenty of wide-open spaces to explore and there are many native species for birdwatchers and wildlife lovers to see.

The rugged east coast is especially interesting thanks to its dramatic coastline as it rises steeply from the Sound of Islay up to the mountain of Beinn Bheigier which stands tall at a height of 491 metres.

The Southern coast of Islay is heavily wooded compared to the rest of the island and there are some amazing places to explore, including Claggain Bay and the stunning wide-open peninsula at The Oa.

Isle of Islay

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 the famous distillery and tasting room overlooking the seashore. It’s a wonderful spot to lose yourself in the history of the west coast islands for a few hours.

One thing I’d definitely recommend you do before setting off to explore Islay is get an Ordnance Survey map so you can find the best walks. OS maps are invaluable for this and I find them a hundred times easier to use than Google Maps. Buy OS Explorer Maps direct from Ordnance Survey.

Scotch Whisky in barrel

The Isle of Islay Whisky

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 distilleries 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, the single malts produced on the island have a very distinctive smoky flavour that’s world-renowned for being the most intense of all the whisky-producing regions.

But there’s a lot of history associated with Islay whisky too.

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The oldest distillery on the island can be found in the village of Bowmore and was founded all the way back in 1779, a time when Islay’s whisky was so popular that there were 23 distilleries in operation – although most of these have now sadly closed their doors.

If you want to learn more, most of the remaining distilleries have guided tours where for a small fee you’ll be shown the entire distilling process before being given a sample or two.

There are also some excellent cafes and gift shops at most distilleries so there’s really no reason not to visit at least one of them during your stay.

If you’re interested in discovering the history of Scotch and how it’s made you can also read my complete guide to the single malt whisky regions of Scotland.

Isle of Islay

The Isle of Islay Wildlife

Along with the tourism for Islays landscapes and distilleries it draws in thousands of birdwatchers each year who come to view the vast annual migrations.

One of the biggest flocks that fly onto the island is that of the Barnacle Goose whose numbers swell to around 35,000 birds in winter, and there have been reports of over 10,000 birds flying onto the island in just one day.

There’s a vast number of species that call Islay their home and around 100 different types of birds breed on the island each year, with between 100 to 200 different types living there at any one time.

There are also several thousand deer, otters, whales, seals, lizards and an incredible variety of flora and fauna to see, so if you choose to book a holiday on Islay you might find it worthwhile taking a look at the wildlife page of the official website before you leave.

You might even be able to say hello to a friendly Heilan Coo on your travels!

Islay is basically a wildlife-lovers idea of heaven and comes highly recommended if you want to really experience the nature of Scotland’s west coast islands.

Isle of Islay

The history of the Isle of Islay

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.

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In fact, from the 6th-century Islay was considered to lie within the Irish kingdom of Dal Riata rather than Scotland, 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.

Isle of Islay

His death was significant because it marked the point where the population of Islay finally resisted their 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.

You’ll find evidence of the reign of these ‘Lords of the Isles’ at Finlaggan on the northern side of Islay. There’s a musuem on the site which is quite interesting and a loch with burial remains that are hundreds of years old.

So there you have it. Wildlife, whisky and history on one compact, easy to access Scottish island. I can’t rate it highly enough and I genuinely can’t wait for my next holiday on Islay. See you there!

The highlights

  • Islay is beautiful and it’s a nature-lovers dream location. There’s so much more to this island than whisky distilleries. Claggain Bay and The Oa are worth the ferry price alone.
  • It’s a whisky-lovers paradise (obviously) and the distillery tours are all superb. If you want to find out what Islay’s whisky tours are really like, read my guide to Islay’s whisky distillery tours.
  • The wee villages dotted around the island are lovely. They’re very quaint and the people are exceptionally friendly.

Visiting tips

  • If you’re after a good deal on Islay whisky be sure to check out the little shops dotted about in the villages as you’ll sometimes find a bargain on the shelves.
  • The Oa is a fantastic place for bird watchers. Take your binoculars and a camera with a good zoom lens.
  • There are plenty of places to get a meal on Islay but my favourite is the Old Kiln Cafe at the Ardbeg distillery.
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Photos and video

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Address and map

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 check the Skyscanner website.

For ferry prices and times contact Caledonian MacBrayne:

Click map for directionsGoogle Map of isle of islay


Tickets

Pre-book your Isle of Islay tour ticket here.


Contact details

Website: Islay Info


Facilities

Getting there: Travel to Islay is via ferry

Getting around: Dependent on location

On-site conveniences: Dependent on location