Islay: whisky galore!

Islay Whisky Tours

Islay has nine whisky distilleries – already two more than when we last visited thirty years ago, and soon to be ten when Port Ellen reopens next year. There was no way we were going to visit without sampling a few drams, and driving was therefore not an attractive option. Step forward Islay Whisky Tours, operated by Bowmore Taxis. We chose a one day tour at a cost of £260, which included the services of a driver/guide from 9am to 5pm and tours of two distilleries selected by us. We booked about 6 weeks ahead – the longer the better, the company is deservedly busy and popular – and received a detailed itinerary based around our choices well in advance of our trip. This included short visits to several other distilleries and some general sight-seeing. We had a very enjoyable day, as you will see below, and highly recommend this company.


We chose two contrasting distilleries for our tours – one small and privately owned, the other large and owned by a multi-national. Our lovely driver, Donald, appeared at our accommodation exactly at the time arranged, and we set off immediately for our first destination. Kilchoman, the small distillery we chose, began production in 2005 and is Islay’s second-newest distillery, at the time the first to be built for over 120 years. It’s the only farm distillery on the island and we saw the whole process from the barley growing in the surrounding fields to the small bottling plant. It initially felt a bit weird to be sampling whisky at 10 in the morning – but we got over it!

The distillery also has a small café which looked very good, but we didn’t have time to try it. We did have time to look at the Visitor Centre displays before our tour started and were amused to find four Sinclairs in the list of persons contravening The Excise Act, 1801, i.e. they were probably distilling illegally. Shocking, they can’t be related to me. Nor shall I claim kinship with John Sinclair who established the short-lived Mulindry Distillery in 1826. According to the local Excise Officer, he liked his own product a little too much, went bankrupt in 1831, and emigrated to America. I’m sure any Sinclairs I am related to were fine, upstanding citizens.


Our next stop was Bruichladdich Distillery, on the shore of Loch Indaal ( a sea loch) just outside the pretty village of Port Charlotte. We didn’t have a tour here, but we had a quick look around and came out with a bottle of gin! As well as whisky, Bruichladdich also produces The Botanist Islay Dry Gin, and very good it was too (note past tense).

By the way, if you are pronouncing the ch sounds in these names as in church, then that’s not right. Ch is a guttural, back-of-the-throat, Germanic sound – usually. Just to fool you, Bruichladdich has two chs. The first is pronounced as expected – the other isn’t pronounced at all, hence the name of the Laddie Shop.


Next, we had a couple of hours in Bowmore, the island’s main settlement, to have lunch, look around the distillery (no tour) and explore the unusual Kilarrow Parish Church (1767), otherwise known as the Round Church for obvious reasons. That’s it at the top of the hill, above. There was a great view over the distillery roofs from its upper windows.

We visited Bowmore Distillery, Islay’s oldest (1779) in 1989. From what I can remember, it was the only one offering commercial tours at the time. It hasn’t changed much, though I don’t remember the mermaid.

Again, it’s set right on the shore, almost directly opposite Bruichladdich on Loch Indaal. The sea was an important form of transport – Kilchoman is the exception being inland.


At 2pm we met Donald again and set off for our afternoon visits. The morning had been spent in the north of the island, now we were heading back south where three distilleries lie in close proximity to each other. The furthest away is Ardbeg which dates from 1815, though hasn’t had a continuous history. We liked its green bus, and the views along the coast to Dunyvaig Castle and the neighbouring distillery, Lagavulin.


We didn’t visit Lagavulin next – we drove past it because we had a 3pm tour booked at Laphroaig (pronounced Lafroyg, it means ‘broad hollow by the bay’). Donald and Alexander Johnston founded the distillery in 1815, and it remained in family hands for the next 139 years. These days it’s a multinational, owned by Beam Suntory. Laphroaig is arguably the best known Islay malt: it was certainly the first one I tried and is still my favourite – if you like your drink to taste of peat, smoke, and iodine then its for you (check out the marketing slogans in the gallery below). One person who certainly likes it is Prince Charles who gave the distillery his Royal Warrant in 1994 – his coat of arms (three feathers) appears on every bottle. In the gallery below it’s on the wall in one of the photographs. You can also see a cairn unveiled by the Prince in 2015 for Laphroaig’s bicentenary in 2015.

I haven’t bothered with the technical details of making whisky because I’d probably get them wrong, and you can very easily look them up anyway. As you know, it’s the human element that catches my eye and women’s history in particular. Here we have a splendid example in Bessie Williamson who arrived as a temporary shorthand typist in 1934 but remained for nearly 50 years, eventually becoming the first female distiller and distillery owner in the 20th century. Bravo Bessie!


After our tour at Laphroaig, we backtracked to Lagavulin for a quick look at its grounds. Like many distilleries, its site was originally used for illegal stills, in this case becoming licensed around 1810. It’s now part of the Diageo group. From here we could once again see Dunyvaig Castle, this time from the other side. That’s me with Donald, our driver, in the final photo below.

Port Ellen

On our way back to our accommodation we made one last stop at Port Ellen where we spied this beautiful ship in the bay. The distillery here closed in 1983, but its owners, Diageo again, are set to re-open it next year. You can still buy its single malt whisky, though it’s becoming increasingly rare and therefore expensive. We bought a bottle at a Scotch Malt Whisky Society tasting about 25 years ago, and five of us demolished it the following night. I seem to remember the tasting notes involved sailors’ pigtails …

Donald dropped us off at the end of our tour after a wonderful day during which the sun even shone for us! Many thanks to him and to Lamont who made all the arrangements so splendidly (though possibly he had nothing to do with the sunshine). Once again, a hearty (and completely unsolicited) recommendation for Islay Whisky Tours. Total stars!

Islay: Mull of Oa and Port Ellen

Admiring the extensive views, Mull of Oa

The Oa (just pronounced O) is the rocky and rugged peninsula in the southwest of Islay. Once fairly densely populated, it now has only a few scattered dwellings, one of which is our rented cottage. A top priority was to drive out to the Mull of Oa – the tip – to the American Monument: our error was to do this on the first morning. The weather looked reasonably pleasant from our window, but we failed to take into account that the Mull was considerably higher than we were and the closer we got, the poorer visibility became.

Oh well, we pressed on regardless. The Mull is an RSPB reserve, so we left the car in its parking area and set off on a waymarked circular tour (3.5km). If there were birds, we couldn’t see them.

The outer route is direct to the monument, but before we got there we were surprised by a herd of feral goats suddenly looming out of the mist: almost impossible to photograph. This one looks quite evil!

The monument itself was similarly invisible until we were almost upon it. The second picture below is from our previous visit in 1989 – that’s John lurking under the blue cagoule – so we have never visited this site in good weather! Last time was even worse: we had hired bikes and cycled out from Port Ellen (hence the map pocket round John’s neck) and it wasn’t just misty, it was pouring. I remember we cut our losses on the full-day hire and returned the bikes by lunchtime.

What is the American Monument? It was erected by the American Red Cross in 1920 to commemorate two US troopship disasters off the coast of Islay in 1918. SS Tuscania was torpedoed by a German U-Boat on 5th February with the loss of over 200 American and British crew. A few months later, HMS Otranto sank following a collision in bad weather with another troopship. This time 431 people died, including 80 British crew. As well as the main commemoration, there is a tribute from President Woodrow Wilson.

As we left, we spotted more feral goats. This pair were more visble and posed helpfully against the skyline.

The return journey took us parallel to the clifftops – the mist was clearing a bit by this time. I suppose you could say the view was atmospheric, if not extensive …

From here, we turned inland again towards Upper Killeyan Farm and the path back to the carpark. There were several highland cattle in the field who were not bothered by us at all. Even the one almost blocking the gate barely looked at us as we sidled past. Scary horns though!

As we had to pass our cottage to go on to our next walk, we stopped off there for lunch before heading down to Port Ellen, the island’s second largest town. Below is the Islay Hotel which sits on a corner site overlooking the seafront. (We didn’t go inside this time, but we had lunch there later in the week when I took the shot of their wine glass chandelier which caught my eye.)

We stayed in the Islay Hotel in 1989, though that building was later demolished after 20 years of dereliction, and replaced with the current hotel in 2011. The two views below are of the same terrace. The first, taken in 1989, looks towards the old hotel, the taller building just right of centre. The second, taken this year, looks in the other direction along the terrace from the hotel, but I think you can see that they are recognisably the same.

After almost 3 weeks of camping and B&Bs in 1989, we thought the Islay Hotel would be a treat for the last three nights of our holiday. Nothing could have been further from the truth! The place was very run down and badly managed, so I’m not surprised it closed a few years later. The owners were a couple who, I’m guessing, had sold their home in the South of England for such a vast price that they could afford to buy a Scottish hotel – not an uncommon occurrence. Unfortunately their management skills seemed to be close to zero, but you couldn’t dislike them because every time something went wrong they would laugh merrily as they botched a solution, whereas I’d have been dying of embarrassment at demonstrating such incompetence. Later in the week of our recent stay, we asked someone local if he knew what had happened to them and it seems they left the island. Probably one of their wiser decisions.

Anyway, back to the present day. We wandered round Port Ellen, which didn’t take long, before heading off on a 5km loop in search of standing stones. The weather improved as the afternoon wore on and we were able to appreciate the views this time.

The walk first of all took us up a very well made cycleway / footpath running alongside the main road. There are three distilleries on the coast to the east of Port Ellen – Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg – and this would be a fabulous way to visit them on foot, possibly getting the bus back if the refreshment had taken away your desire to walk. Our whisky plans were for another day, however, so we turned off before we reached any of the distilleries. But first we climbed the small mound topped by the memorial to Major General Alexander McDougall.

McDougall was born in Islay in 1732, but emigrated to New York with his family when he was six. His first job was as a milk delivery boy, then he signed up as a merchant seaman aged 14. He worked his way up to become the owner of several ships before being commissioned in the Continental Amy during the American War of Independence. He later became a politician and President of the Bank of New York – MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village is named in his honour. (I’m not sure why the spelling is different. A mistake? Or maybe he had changed his name slightly?)

Across the road from the memorial is the Old Excise House. We took the lane running alongside it, walking uphill through the fertile fields growing grain for the whisky.

The verges were lush with wild flowers. A stile on the right provided access to the first standing stone, one of many dotted across Islay which date from the Neolithic or early Bronze Age. Climbing above it, we could look back on the distillery buildings of Laphroaig.

We continued up the lane and turned right onto the tiny road towards Kilbride Farm where there is another stone.

Retracing our steps, we passed the junction with the lane and carried on down the road back to Port Ellen. Here we met some curious cows who gave us a hard stare from behind a wall. They didn’t have the big horns of the highland cattle, but they looked much more intimidating. The second picture below, of cows blocking a gate, dates from 1989 so we must have had a similar experience then. What is it about Islay cows?

The field across the road contained another standing stone. There appeared to be no cows in it, but there’s a cunning dip in which they were hiding. As we walked up to the stone we spooked a small herd of deer which ran down the slope, followed by the thundering hooves of at least 20 cows. They ran back and forward across the field as a herd, eventually stopping between us and the gate. And staring. Hard. We sidled to the fence at the side. Barbed wire, so I wasn’t going to climb that. Fortunately by this time, the cows were beginning to lose interest in us and wandered off. No pictures of this bunch, but next to the stone below (which wasn’t even all that attractive) you can see the first lot again who, after our escape, were still giving us the evil eye.

The last stone was near the junction of the main road we’d started out on. Fortunately, no cows in sight. From there it was a short distance back to Port Ellen and our car.

I really should have had my July Gallivanting post online today, but guess what? We’ve been gallivanting too much! A large part of the month was spent travelling with no time to write and sometimes without decent wifi, which also eplains why I have been less active in blog reading and commenting – apologies!  I’ll do a joint July / August Gallivanting post instead.

In a further complication,  I’ve been called to the High Court for jury duty, starting on Wednesday. As this is the last post I prepared before we went on holiday, I might have to go silent for a bit if I’m selected to serve. I know it’s my civic duty and I should want to do it, but I really hope I’m not picked. I’ve served on four juries in total, the first when I was only 19 years old, so I think I’ve done my bit!

Till we meet again … may it be soon.