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County Town: Bowmore
Population: 3,457
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Islay

The Queen of the Hebrides takes some getting to but the effort is repaid a hundred-fold, and if you are hitting the island in the autumn you’ll not be bothered by crowds nor by Scotland’s famous midges; and the Gulf Stream keeps things temperate into the bargain. Islay may be small but with good weather walking and cycling are wonderful; birding excellent; and the fishing plentiful. And with a wee bit of rain there are eight distilleries to explore and possibly the world’s greatest whiskies to sample.

From Kennacraig the ferry trip lasts a bit over two hours, which given half-decent weather affords some great sight-seeing. Flights from Glasgow are a convenient if not cheap alternative but you miss out on those views. Not that once on the island you will be short of sights to fill the memory for years to come: the shoreline of the horseshoe-shaped isle is dramatic, with stretches of sandy beach to be discovered, and rockpools for those who love checking out the micro-wildlife; and inland the hills are truly lovely.

The abundance of lochs and their little brothers the lochans along with the seashore means fishermen have sport to keep them occupied: fly-fishing by arrangement with good brownies the prey; and pollack just one of the sea-fish to go after. The same stretches of water draw lots of avian life too, and otters are far from rare here.

Foodies will love the fixation local chefs have for the abundant local ingredients: unless you’re vegetarian shame on you if you don’t try the scallops, the salmon in its many forms, the lobsters and crabs caught in the pots all around the shore, the venison and the lamb. Try the excellent Harbour Inn, the Bowmore Hotel or the Ballygrant Inn, just three of the great eateries here.

But for many of us Islay is synonymous with whisky. Islay offers a spirited education with most of the distilleries happy to welcome visitors and often to show them around too. Three of these temples to the water of life, Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig, are conveniently grouped together in the south of the island. These three are the peaty monsters of Islay, huge flavours of smoke and iodine and heather and... You either love them or loathe them. Definitely subtler, and more easily accessible, are the more northerly products of Bowmore, Bruichladdich, and best of all Bunnahabhain (say ‘Boona-harv’n’), the latter all caramel and fruit-cake and for some a touch of the sea-spray that wafts over the distillery that is probably the most beautifully situated of all on Islay. The prospect of a few consolatory drams by the fire almost makes you wish for bad weather.

Visitor Feedback

Review from Moira McCulloch, 6th Mar 2013:
Are there guided tours on the island of Islay? Are there taxi services, trains and public transport, etc? My Grandmother came from Islay.

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