Imagine an island with just over 3000 people. Everything is green and there are rolling hills separated by lush fields. Sheep run free across narrow roads and there’s a faint scent of seaweed smoke in the air… Oh, and the whisky flows freely. This, my friends, is Islay – an island off the western coast of Scotland – and it is heaven on earth.
Apart from wanting to see where my ancestors were lived, we also wanted to visit Scotland for the booze. We’re scotch whisky people and visiting the place where it’s distilled sounded like a vacation right up our alley. We knew that many of our favorite scotches were distilled on Islay (Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and Ardbeg) and so without much other research, we booked our trip there.
All About the Isle of Islay: A Scottish Island
We got on a small prop plane in Glasgow with about 15 others. The airport was the smallest I’d ever seen. Apparently, only there are only 3 commercial flights each day, and they’re all about the size that we were on. We got our rental car and started our short journey to The Islay Hotel on the southern coast.
It was hard to believe that this was an island. The landscape was absolutely stunning, but it wasn’t tropical. It was very clear that the land was agricultural and I felt like a fly on the wall while people went about their normal daily lives, nearly tourist-free. Sheep occasionally blocked the main road and we’d stop to shoo them gently with our horn.
We had 2 main objectives while in Islay: 1) drink as much whisky as possible, and 2) visit the woollen mill. I’m happy to say we accomplished both.
In just a few minutes, we made our way to the village of Port Ellen. The buildings were weathered and were sandwiched together. The village had a character about it that just made my heart burst. Unlike other places, there was little here for tourists: no tourist shops and only one restaurant outside of an inn. I really felt like I was seeing the real place because it wasn’t overrun with “tourist” attractions or junk souvenir shops. It was like the people of Islay welcomed us into their homes without a fuss.
The hotel where we stayed (The Islay Hotel) was just near the water on the corner of the street. We made our way up 2 flights of stairs to our room where we had views of the village and of building ruins.
The first thing we did was take a little drive to the village of Bowmore. It was slightly larger than Port Ellen, but still had that “welcome to my home” feel. I think there was a couple of shops there: a whisky soap boutique, and a celtic “souvenir” shop, both of which were closed on the day we visited. The town is mostly on one street that starts at the top of a hill at the Kilarrow Parish Church and runs down to a small boat dock where I can only imagine the crab and lobster boats launch.
Bowmore Distillery is here, too… and once again, when we arrived, they were closed. We took a short run to in the gift shop and picked up 3 small sampling bottles of their popular whiskies for later. We walked around the grounds a little more before making our way to the pier. The peat smoke in the air mixed with the smell of fish from the boats to create a unique aroma I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
Because we were only on the island for about a day and a half, we decided we only had time to visit the southern distilleries: Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg. All of them are just a short jaunt from Port Ellen. We could have walked had we had the courage, but decided against it. All the distilleries are within a couple of miles of one another and there’s a paved foot-traffic path that allows for easy walking access.
The first distillery we came to was Laphroaig and I thought it the presentation was adorable. Funny sayings on ceramic tiles made a wall that directed you to the visitor’s center. We took a tour here and learned exactly how their scotch is made.
If you go back to the road and make a right, you’ll run into Lagavulin Distillery (my favorite). We did a really cool warehouse tasting here where we drank directly from the casks of several vintages. It was probably my single favorite experience of the trip.
Dunyvaig Castle is right off the coast and it’s such a picturesque view from the dock. It’s incredible to think about what the area was like when the sixteenth-century castle was built.
Follow the road east from Lagavulin and you’ll reach the last distillery on the southern coast: Ardbeg. That’s where we decided to go for lunch. We were excited to learn that you get a free dram with lunch, so instead of staying for a tasting, we decided to just make lunch a tasting of our own. We ordered 3 drams: Uigeadail, Corryvreckan, and Perpetuum.
After lunch, we walked around the grounds and enjoyed the beautiful Scottish weather.
Kildalton Cross & Church Ruins
During some free time, we stumbled upon the ruins of an old church. We climbed the nearby hill and could look straight down into the ruins. It was an incredible sight. It was here where John found a grave of one of my ancestors – a Galbraith.
It was around the golden hour when we visited and the way the light hit the ruins and came through the trees was spectacular. It sounds funny to say it, but being here during this time of day felt almost spiritual.
The Islay Woollen Mill
No trip to Scotland would be complete without some cashmere, so we took a trip to the old Islay Woollen Mill. I wish I could say the experience getting there was fun without GPS, but we took a wrong turn down a one lane, two-way street in the fog for fifteen minutes. If whisky won’t put hair on your chest, coming face to face with a local truck on this street will.
When we arrived and opened our car doors, we heard birds chirping and the rush of a babbling brook. A couple of small buildings stood on the property, including the mill. We made our way inside and were offered a tour. I halfway expected a young twenty-something to rush off and tell us the history, but I was pleasantly surprised when the owner himself met us to give us a short tour of the facilities.
The tour ended and we filled our arms with cashmere and wool before heading out.
Scotland’s Best Kept Secret
Islay was the most memorable part of Scotland for me. I loved feeling like I had stepped into someone else’s quaint world for a while. I loved smelling the peat smoke in the air, the friendly and proud locals, the beautiful hills and green fields, the wooly sheep and the hairy cows, and of course, I loved the whisky.
I believe that Islay is Scotland’s best kept secret. I desperately hope it remains the same in the years to come. It was a unique experience that I hope to relive again. After all, we need to venture to the north shore distilleries.