Islay: The Queen of the Hebrides

This Postcard piece was featured in the February edition of Bartender magazine.

By Edward Washington
Photography by Edward Washington

The Place

Islay is a place of romance, of deafening silence, biting winds and of course…all things whisky. As part of the inner Hebrides it clings to the waist of Scotland and clambers for notoriety as a destination spot. While it is surely the whisky that it is known for, it was the island’s place in history that drew me to it. I wanted to explore the raised sandy beaches that are scares from millions of years ago, and I wanted to experience the salty air beating me from all angles as it has upon walls of age old ruins. If you visit the island you can watch the deadly sea tides that have laid ships to ruin churn as they endlessly pound the shoreline. My hope was to walk from the shaggy and rugged outcrops in the north to the high rolling hills overlooking Bowmore and never loose sight of the Paps of Jura, one of the most brilliant views imaginable. A tad romantic? Perhaps, but that’s what whisky is all about.


Toward the north of Islay is a place called Finlaggen and from the 14th century it was the seat from where most of the Scottish west coast was ruled. To stand amid the ruins of this historic site as the morning sun burned away the heavy fog you can’t help but feel connected to the past and wonder about the momentous events that took place here. The remains of a stone jetty that protrude from the loch’s quiet waters would have brought news of fortune and warnings of danger in their day. True, there was little danger for me of being captured by marauding Scottish bandits, but the hundreds of sheep scattered across the landscape took flight as I approached in the grey light and bellowed their warnings around the silent valley sending a shiver down my spine.

An eight hour hike took me north to the fresh water streams that drizzle high above Bunnahabhain Distillery and back down to the water side copper stills at Caol Illa Distillery (best pronounced k-lee-la). From there I followed the coastline and stopped for a whisky lunch at Port Askaig. At this scenic port the ferry that runs from the Isle of Jura every half an hour crosses the dangerously narrow straight. The little boat charges full steam against the incredibly strong and deadly current, so strong in fact that the boat rides sideways through the battering swell. It shuttles bike riders, hikers and the local school bus in all except the foulest weather when the service is suspended leaving Jura and its thousands of deer in total isolation.

Islay is a blanket of rolling slopes and historical ruins and is easily accessible by foot (as long as you don’t mind clambering over innumerable stone fences). The island is the perfect place to hike and to bird watch (the other main attraction here) and you should make the effort to enjoy a dram of malt amidst ruins of a Neolithic round house somewhere high up on a hillside. On a clear and sunny day you can look across the water toward Bruichladdich distillery and if you take the opportunity to climb the hills behind this distillery you can look back toward the distillery at Bowmore and watch as the white spray washes the walls and the gulls float high above.

Directions to Islay

Start at Glasgow and take a bus west to the town of Tarbert. Spend the night here and be sure to have a drink with the locals. There are a couple of choices in Tarbert for dinner, the local ‘fine dining’ seafood restaurant gets a good nod from the locals and the Tarbert Tandoori Restaurant gets a good nod from me. Next morning hitch a lift to Kennacraig’s ferry terminal; it’s about 2 miles down the road so you can actually walk if the weather is forgiving.

Grab your ticket at the docks (or on-line if you’re prepared) and skip the swirling waters to Islay. Make sure you are on the side deck when the morning mist breaks and the white washed walls of the island’s distilleries come into view – it’s a site worth seeing and one that is hard to beat.

The People

“You must be here for the whisky,” they all say. It’s not that you’re forgetting the other attractions of Islay – and there are plenty, but yes, ultimately the reason we are here is the whisky and it happens to be the week of the Islay Whisky Festival…good timing. Even if it is not the heavy, salty or peaty malts that you crave, the island is, by its own admission, a whisky destination and should be a must on any whisky lover’s itinerary.

Once you’re there you realise just how big this little island actually is. Roughly 20 miles wide and the same in length, it’s pretty sparsely populated through the centre and the ‘CBD’ of Bowmore is quiet at the busiest of times. The local bus service is the best way to get around and you get to meet plenty of the locals that way. If you’re lucky you’ll run into Dougie, an island resident before anyone can remember with sideburns from the late 17th century and dressed top to toe in corduroy. Chatting with the bus driver he pointed out another character who was (allegedly) the island’s very own horse smuggler back in the day – it’s a place brimming with characters as complex and unique as the malts they produce.

If the bus timetable isn’t going to get you where you need to be then you can use the other, ‘other’ mode of Islay’s public transport; hitchhiking. It’s probably the only place I’d recommend doing it as it was recommended to me by the locals. More than once I was plucked of the roadside and dropped to where I was headed with nothing more than a smile as a thank you. If the cars are passing you by, then it’s probably a tourist who doesn’t know the custom so keep your thumb out.

The people of Islay are very happy to see tourists so don’t shy away from visiting. If you make the effort to get of the beaten track and choose the Islay’s distilleries over the Highland ones they reward you with a wonderful experience – in saying that so do the wonderful folk in the Highlands, but to visit Islay is to experience a place on earth that is truly special and in a lot of ways still very connected with it’s history. You don’t get a sideways glance when you order yourself a malt at 10am either, and when the cold wind blows (and it does from every angle) it’s a good way to warm up your morning! Once you have made it to Islay you feel like you have paid your respects to a small community that has been supplying the world with some of the best malt whisky going round for a very long time.

The Whisky

Where do you start? There are serious whisky bars the world over that would envy the collections found at the local Islay pubs and restaurants. It’s wall to wall, with vertical flights of just about anything you could imagine and bottles you have never heard of, let alone seen. Of course the best thing to do is place complete trust in the publican and to just start somewhere. Where can you drink? Most of the islands lodgings will have their own extensive collection so that’s a good start but Duffies in Bowmore is a good bet and yes, there’s a bloke called Duffy behind the bar.

The first whisky I had (about 20 minutes after arriving) was an 18yr old Laphroaig at the Laphroaig Distillery with the Master Ambassador, Simon Brooking. It was surprisingly fresh and sweet for an aged Islay malt and was a great introduction. Simon sang the traditional Scottish toast before we drank and I was lucky enough to have a fair bit more of that great malt at Laphroaig’s Friends of Laphroaig ‘Gathering’ held that night. Trampling through a sodden field in the rain, oversized drams of whisky in hand to stay warm, we were photographed with our plots of land and a shivering smile – truly a memorable experience!

The range of malt from Islay is well known and they are a feature on the backbars all over Australia. The great thing about being on the island is you gain access to a whole range of whisky that doesn’t see much light outside its native area. Whether it is a single release, an anniversary bottle or some sample stock that is sitting in a small medicine vial there is an abundance to choose from. Still struck with the island’s history I went for the Port Ellen Anniversary releases. Although the Port Ellen site is still used as a malting and storage facility, the distillery is no longer producing malt and proportions of the remaining bonded whisky are bottled at cask strength at various intervals. When tasted, it packs a real punch but quite simply it’s the one malt that has stayed with me since leaving. Extremely rich with wonderful sweet malt characteristics and great length – if there’s a bar in Sydney that has some can you send me an email!

What to Do On Islay

Visit the distilleries: Some are better than others and some offer tours where you can visit their water sources, peat bogs and other ‘traditional’ sites that are unique to their distillery’s history. Definitely visit Bruichladdich as it still has the original machinery from the 1800s in use and gives a bit of insight into the way it was done before more modern techniques were introduced.

Go walking: Buy an ordnance map and head out for a days hike. Pretty much the whole island is open to explore and it’s littered with relics going back thousands of years. Pack some whisky in your bag as well and take some time to chill on out a hill side or swim in a loch (about 13 degrees in May).


Eat and Drink

The Tandoori Restaurant (Harbour St, Tarbert)
Scotland is famed for it’s curry. This place is a solid bet before a night at the local pub.

The Corner House Pub (Harbour St, Tarbert)
Packed house with a good vibe and a friendly crowd.

The Frigate Hotel (Harbour St, Tarbert)
The Tarbert local. The kind of place where everyone turns and says, “I’ve not seen him before”. A great pub with a great crowd.

(Bowmore, Islay): Duffy is behind the bar, and there is a virtual wall of malt. The Port Ellen ‘annual releases’ are the pick.

The Ballygrant Inn (Islay): A great place to stay for a few days and with an extensive whisky bar, you might not even have to leave! A good place to drop in for a malt.

Port Askaig (Islay): A great place to head to for a lunch stop before heading over to Jura. Enjoy a dram while taking in the view and enjoy some Islay Ale beer while you’re here.

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