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Issue 29 - Enticing isles

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 29
October 2006


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Enticing isles

John Hannavy visits the west coast islands of Islay and Jura

Islay and Jura are more directly reached from the mainland by the short sailing from Kennacraig on Kintyre, but they came into our itinerary as part of a round trip island-hopping voyage from Oban via Colonsay.

It was a relatively short sail south from Scalasaig on Colonsay to Port Askaig on Islay – one of two CalMac ports of call on the island. The other – Port Ellen – offers daily sailings to and from Kennacraig.

Port Askaig is a busy little harbour, with bulk carriers sometimes moving out of the way as the ferry approaches, returning to continue unloading malted barley for the island’s many distilleries once the berth is clear again.

The distilleries – Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, Laphroaig and more recently Kilchoman – get plenty of coverage in Scotland Magazine and our sister publication Whisky Magazine, so for this essay, we’ll just acknowledge that they are there and that they are an essential part of any visit to the island.

On the way to enjoy a splendid tour of the distillery at Bowmore on the shores of Loch Indaal, though, don’t forget to visit the village’s unique round church. Bowmore itself dates only from 1767 when the village of Kilarrow was razed to the ground to improve the grounds of Islay House, and the church, more correctly known as Kilarrow Parish Church, was one of the first buildings in the new settlement. By the time the distillery opened in 1779, more than 500 people lived in the village and worshipped in the church. Historians believe that the unique design was adapted from an idea by John Adam, never executed, for a church at Inveraray on the mainland.

To some, much of Islay feels less like an island than the others – a fact due more to good quality roads with double white lines down the middle than anything else! Somehow constantly having to negotiate single track roads with passing places help create that ‘island feeling’ on Mull, Iona, Colonsay, Lismore and the others. The needs of the relatively large population, of the many tourists, and of the busy distilleries are all reflected in the greater ease of travel on Islay’s main roads. But there are plenty of narrow ones as well, and we had to negotiate some of those to reach the island’s treasures.

The nine foot high Great Cross of Kildalton – a giant of a Celtic Cross in the village of the same name a few miles from Port Ellen – is one of the wonders of Islay. How it has survived more than 1200 years is only slightly more surprising than how it was created in the first place: intricately carved from a single piece of stone, it seems to defy any suggestion that eighth century humans were unsophisticated.

By contrast, the slim design of Kilchoman Cross near Machir Bay on the west coast – at least 600 years younger and a foot shorter – seems understated, although anywhere else it too would draw amazed glances.

As a contrast to the civilisation of Islay, the short crossing to Jura could not be a more complete divide. Where Islay is fertile, welcoming and green, Jura is mountainous and, in places, forbidding. It is also breathtakingly beautiful in its rugged emptiness, a landscape dominated by huge screecovered mountains, served by a single stretch of road up the east coast – along the only strip of land which sustains human life today.

Once there was a regular ferry service from the Scottish mainland to Craighouse on the eastern side of the island, but that ceased decades ago and now the pier is rotting and in need of considerable rebuilding. The walls of the bar in the excellent Jura Hotel are covered with photographs of long ago visits of steamers and liners to the small landing stage. Maybe one day the ships will return.

Just up the narrow road from Craighouse, the remains of the village of Keils show poignantly that crofting life on Jura, never easy, is now only barely tenable. The old buildings, only a few of which are still habitable, show this once to have been a substantial crofting village and once a thriving community. Some of the buildings still have their thatched roofs in place in part at least, but in others their A-frame construction is open to the elements.

Although listed as architecturally and socially important, this early 19th century village – once a common site in Scottish crafting country, is rapidly succumbing to of nature’s attempts to reclaim it.

Jura also has a distillery – the Isle of Jura Distillery at Craighouse – but the island, much of which is a private estate, is home mainly to sheep and deer — the deer showing considerable curiosity, but little fear of passing cars as they stand majestic and firm on the hillsides, or even in the middle of the road. Jura is rugged Scotland.

Back on Islay, we watched as CalMac’s ferry Hebridean Isles approached the slipway, just across the road from the Port Askaig Hotel, where it stayed only long enough to change passengers and cars. Crossing back to mainland Scotland at Kennacraig in late summer evening sun is a perfect end to island hopping which has produced such vivid visual contrasts.