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Issue 55 - The Lords of the Isles

Scotland Magazine Issue 55
February 2011


This article is 7 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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The Lords of the Isles

Our man takes us round Islay to discover there's more than just whisky

TWENTY FOUR hours is a tight schedule for an island such as Islay which offers so much potential, but not impossible given suitable transport. Measuring twenty five miles north to south and twenty miles east to west, with 130 miles of coastline, the island’s capital Bowmore is situated on Loch Indaal, approximately ten miles by car from both major ferry ports, Port Askaig in the north, and Port Ellen in the south.

The first decision is where to stay. For those intent on exploring Bowmore with its famous distillery, environmentally advanced MacTaggart Leisure Centre, and historic round church built in 1767 with no corners for the devil to hide in, there is a choice of three hotels: the award winning Harbour Inn & Restaurant, owned by Neil and Carol Scott, the Bowmore Hotel, or Lochside Hotel on Shorestreet. Located on the The Square and adjacent to the harbour, The Inns Over-by comes under the umbrella of the Harbour Inn and offers self-catering accommodation. Although this is their mail line business, the owners, Neil and Carol Scott, also run the Islay Slate Company which features a hand crafted range of quality slate products: coasters, place mats, wall hangings, wine racks, cheese boards and mouse mats .

Having arrived in Bowmore, however, probably the next step is to visit the Tourist Information Office in The Square and plan your itinerary, followed up with a snack at the Cottage Restaurant. With only twenty four hours, you need to be decisive about what you intend to do, even if it is to simply explore the many sandy beaches, or locate the many species of bird to be found in the hills or inhabiting the abundant woodland and mudflats.

Over a thousand years ago, a kingdom was created out of the Inner and Outer Hebrides, from the Butt of Lewis in the north, to the isle of Man, off the coast of England to the south. Incorporated also were the mainland seaboards of Argyll and Northerh Ireland, and the centre of this kingdom was the Island of Islay, medieval seat of the allpowerful Lords of the Isles.

Somerled, Lord of Argyll and the isles in the twelfth century, unable to continually meet the threat of Norse invasion, married Ragnihildis, daughter of King Olave the Red of Norway.

Through this union, he acquired supreme power throughout a seascape region of scattered island communities, but after his death his territories were dispersed among his sons from whom descend the MacDougalls of Argyll and Lorn, and Clan Donald, otherwise known as the MacDonalds of Islay. Somerled’s legacy was fractious and led to much infighting among subsequent generations.

The very remoteness of these lands made it impossible for a centralised government to take control, although following the collapse of the Lords of the Isles in 1493, Islay was acquired by the Campbells of Cawdor who held relatively peaceful tenure until their finances were undermined by the potato blight of the 1850s. At that time, much of the island was acquired by the Morrison family, ennobled to the peerage as lords Margadale.

A few miles south of Port Askaig, and the small ferry crossing to the isle of Jura, stand the ruins of Finlaggan, Clan Donald’s once palatial residence; in the far south of the island, Dunnyveg Castle, the seat of the MacDonalds of Islay and Kintyre sits on Lagavulin Bay.

Both are reminders of that turbulent past when seafaring plunder and internecine struggle were an everyday reality. While in the vicinity, a visit to the Islay Woollen Mill (, owned by Gordon and Sheila Covell, is to be highly recommended. Some of their designs have featured in Hollywood films such as Braveheart, Forrest Gump and Rob Roy.

Fertile fields, deep reserves of blue-black peat, soft water, seaweed on the shores, and the seaenriched Atlantic air, all of these influences have helped to create the distinctive tastes, heavy and smoky, of the Islay single malts which have contributed so much to the island’s fame and fortune. There are eight distilleries on Islay: Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich , Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin and Laphroaig, all built on the shoreline to facilitate the dispatch and receipt of goods by means of small coastal vessels.

On the far side of Loch Indaal from Bowmore, lies Port Charlotte, a model village created for local distillery workers in 1828. The buildings have since been transformed into a Youth Hostel and the headquarters of the Islay Natural History Trust , and the Museum of Islay Life is located in the nearby church.

For those suffering from tooth ache, the “Tooth Stone” situated on the road leading to Portnaven can be an added bonus. Tradition has it that hammering a nail into its surface will immediately stop the pain.

From the ferry terminal at Port Ellen in the south of the island, take the coastal road north and it brings you to Islay’s most famous treasure, the ninth century High Cross of Kildalton, hewn from a single slab of local stone and a masterpiece of stone carving. It sits inside the grounds of the roofless Kildalton Church, an early reminder of the influence of Christianity in an almost forgotten Celtic twilight.

Every May, the island celebrates Fèis Ìle, a festival of music and malt (distilleries have open days) dedicated to promoting Gaelic and Scottish culture. For golfers, the Machrie links , which are located close to the airport at Glenegadale, is a magical place of “blasted heaths and blessed greens.” There are two ways to travel to Islay. The first is by sea; the second is by air.

Caledonian MacBrayne operates a daily car ferry service from Kennacraig on West Loch Tarbert on the Kintyre Peninsula, and there are sailings to Port Ellen in the south of Islay, and to Port Askaig in the north. For the yachting fraternity, there are anchorages at Port Ellen, Lagavulin, Portnahaven, Port Charlotte, Port Askaig, the Caol Ila Distillery and Bowmore.

Loganair (under its FlyBe franchise) flies to Islay Glenegadale Airport twice daily from Glasgow.

Hebridean Air Services also operate a Tuesday and Thursday day service from Oban and Colonsay.