Islay: the Rhinns of Islay

View across Loch Indaal from John Francis Campbell Monument

The Rhinns of Islay is the peninsula which makes up the north-west of the island. We’d been as far as Port Charlotte on our whisky tour, so the next day we decided to explore the Rhinns’ furthest end. But first we stopped to climb a small, monument-topped hill near Bridgend, from where we could see across Loch Indaal to the route we would take. The monument is to John Francis Campbell (1821-1885), a descendant of Daniel Campbell who bought Islay in 1726. John would have inherited Islay himself, had his father not run up huge debts forcing him to sell up in the 1840s. However, John carved out a reputation for himself in other fields, as a renowned author and scholar who became an authority on Celtic folklore producing the four-volume collection Popular Tales of the West Highlands.

From here, we drove to the end of the Rhinns to explore the twin coastal villages of Port Wemyss and Portnahaven, both built in the 1830s to house tenants who were cleared from the island’s interior. The Campbell of the day, Walter Frederick, named Port Wemyss after his father-in-law, the 8th Earl of Wemyss. (He also founded Port Charlotte and Port Ellen, called after his mother and his wife respectively.)

We found a small parking area in Port Wemyss, just across from the small island of Orsay on which stands the Rhinns of Islay lighthouse, built by Robert Stevenson in 1825. From here we followed a 2.5km loop through both villages. Burnside Lodge in Port Wemyss operates as a café in the summer – as this was May it wasn’t open, but we were delighted to discover the Cake Cupboard! Flasks for tea and coffee, a selection of delicious home baking and an Honesty Box to pay for it all. We had a break here before we’d even started our walk …

Following the pretty coastal path through the village we could see seals basking on the rocks over on Orsay.

Back on the road, we reached Portnahaven – quirkily decorative.

We discovered that the Parish Church was having a coffee morning – well, it would have been rude not to visit, don’t you think? Their cakes were good too – this was a day of appalling diet.

We continued to waddle round the village, making our way back to Port Wemyss along the coast. I wonder who lost a hat?

Next stop, Port Charlotte where we started by visiting the Museum of Islay Life, housed in an old church.

I found lots of interest here including, amongst other things, an old light from the Rhinns Lighthouse which we’d just seen:

An example of the illicit stills we kept reading about:

And a display about the loss of the Tuscania and Otranto in 1918, the ships commemorated by the American Monument which we’d visited on our first day. This included the notebook of local police sergeant Malcolm MacNeill who went to great lengths in his attempts to identify the bodies washed ashore – here he lists the property of each man found (taken through glass, sorry about the awful picture, but I found it too moving to leave out).

Most intriguingly, I photographed the group of pipers below because it included a MacAffer (my great-grandfather’s sister married a MacAffer) and only realised when preparing this post that it also included Piper Lily MacDougall whose gravestone I featured a couple of weeks ago. I was interested because she had such a long life, dying aged 100 in 2014. It doesn’t say on the museum caption when the photograph was taken, but I bought a book of old Islay which includes the same image and gives the date as 1972, so Lily would have been 58 here.

After the museum, we went on another short loop walk (5 km – not quite enough to work off all that cake). We passed the hotel and its pretty garden …

… before following the shore to the lighthouse at Rubh’an Duin.

Then through a field observed by curious sheep, across the road and up a farm track with evidence that the farmer grows grain for nearby Bruichladdich. There used to be another distillery actually in Port Charlotte, Lochindaal, which closed in 1929.

We continued to climb above the village where we got good views over Loch Indaal and Port Charlotte and were terrorised (well, I was) by another herd of excitable cattle – not the beautiful highland cows shown below who allowed us to pass without showing much interest in us at all.

The journey back was on a minor road which took us down to the pier for a final look at the village.

From here, we returned to our cottage. I can’t remember what we cooked for dinner that night, but I hope it was suitably nutritious to counteract all that cake!