Along the southeast coast, north from Port Ellen, lie three distilleries all within a mile of each other. Ardbeg might be the least known of the three, but the people here are out to change that. Of all of the Islay whiskys, Ardbeg features the smokiest and peatiest flavor of all which is saying something. The history of the distillery - begun in 1815 - has been up and down through the years though they seem to be coming into their own since their latest re-opening (they are owned by the French makers of Hennessey champagnes). They do not malt or kiln their barley - something that only a few of the distilleries on the island actually do - nor do they bottle their product here. Lately, demand has forced them to age some of their product on the mainland as they have run out of warehouse space, so efficient their production has become - they are a 24 hour producer. There is an excellent tour - one of the best on the island - given for 3.50 pounds finished of with a wee dram of their products. A souvenir shop and a nice place to eat lunch - the Old Kiln Cafe - can also be found here.
Tour times: 1030,1130,1430, 1530 with only the 1130 and 1430 tours running during the months of Sept to May.
Bowmore Distillery is prominently set along the eastern shore of Loch Indaal and takes up half of the village of Bowmore. The distillery dominates the town, especially appreciated when looking across the loch waters from the western shores near Bruichladdich. Bowmore is one of the distilleries on the island that still malts and kilns a substantial amount of their barley - something like about 40%. Belonging to the Japanese-owned Suntory consortium, bottling takes place near Glasgow with the other distilleries in the Suntory family. Flavorwise, Bowmore falls in the middle of the Islay spectrum - Ardbeg at one end of the spectrum and Cao Isla and Bunnahabhain at the other - a spectrum defined by the amount of smoky peat present. That said, peat is still definitely in the background of this fine Islay whisky. From what a Japanese tourist told me, Bowmore is one of the most favorite of single malts in Japan. So popular with this young man that he and his wife came all the way from Japan for a two week trip to Europe centered around touring this distillery. For Four pounds you are given a fine tour through the distillery from which you can gain a good understanding of the entire whisky-making process from the malting stage through to the aging of the casks in Warehouse Number One. A unique phase of the production here at Bowmore is the clever use of hot water generated in the process. The water needs to be cooled and to cool it, the water is shunted next door to the old warehouse/new community swimming pool - MacTaggert Pool. The pool is heated and the newly cooled water is returned for use in the distillery.
Tour times: 1000, 1100, 1400, 1500
Be sure visit Finlaggan -- where the Kings and then the Lords of the Isles held sway over varying amounts of territory. The MacDonald clan figures largely in this history.
It is now maintained by a private trust.
Here are a few helpful websites:
Port Charlotte is another planned village founded by William Frederick Campbell in 1828 to house workers involved in the Lochindaal Distillery operation which was also begun in that year. The village was named after his mother. Strung out along Loch Indaal, the town is maybe the most scenic on the island. There are two hotels and a youth hostel - the hostel is housed an old Lochindaal warehouse; the distillery closed in 1929 - here and at the north end of the town inside the old United Free Church is the Museum of Islay Life. The museum is packed with exhibits and information about the island. Next door is the old Port Charlotte distillery which is going to reopen in 2009 and is being run by the team from Bruichladdich. Besides the youth hostel, the Islay Natural History Centre is also located in the former Lochindaal Distillery.
Port Ellen is the second largest town on Islay with a few less people than Bowmore. It is a main ferry terminal - along with Port Askaig - and is situated prettily enough around Loch Leodamain. The town - there are a couple hotels, b/b's, an internet cafe and a dive center in place - was founded in 1821 by William Frederick Campbell (the same who lies inside the chapel of the Round Church in Bowmore) and was named after his wife, Ellinor. Four years after the town was founded, the Port Ellen Distillery started up, but that operation has been quiet for some time now, though you can still find the odd bottle or two of Port Ellen whisky for sale at a hefty price. The Diageo company operates a large malting plant here and many of the island's distilleries buy their malt from here.
Built in 1767, the Round Church stands high atop Main Street in Bowmore. Round because within there are no corners for the Devil to hide in. The church was built on orders of Daniel Campbell who wanted to have a new church for the villagers he was going to displace around his manor house. The idea for both the town and the Round Church came from discussions with the other Campbell branch that developed Inverary. Inside the entry is a monument to Walter Campbell - who succeeded Daniel. The sarcophagus of Walter Frederick Campbell - he came, yet later - is inside the actual church with his wife. The church's upstairs gallery was added around 1830. Along the back wall, there is a memorial to Dr Donald Caskie who was a local whom was a Scottish church minister in Paris when it fell to the Nazis in 1940. Caskie helped organize a network to get British and Allied servicemen out of France. He was known as the 'Tartan Pimpernel'. He is buried outside the church. Others buried included men of the Royal Navy Sunderland flying boats that flew out of the town's pier in World War II - many men from Canada and Australia.
The Campbells of Cawdor became the lords of Islay with the fall of clan Macdonald. At first, the Campbells lived in the ruins of the Dunyvaig Castle but moved to a new manor house, the Islay House, near present day Bridgend. At that time, there was a small village known as Kilarrow next to their new home. when it came time for new landscaping, the villagers were displaced - 1768 - and resettled in this planned village set out in a grid pattern next to Loch Indaal several miles to the south. The townsfolk were settled after a new parish church - the Round Church - was built by Daniel Campbell, in 1767. The Bowmore Distillery followed shortly thereafter in 1779. Bowmore is the location for the island's high school and the pagoda roofs emulate the kiln pagodas of the distillery. Bowmore is just barely the largest village on the island and serves as the main hub of the island. Directly on the main square you will also find the island's tourist information center.
Standing on a rock on the north side of Lagavulin Bay is the old stronghold of the Macdonalds - long holders of the title, Lords of the Isles. Dunyvaig Castle was besieged in 1615 and 1647 which goes a long way in explaining the ruinous state of the castle today. With the fall of the Macdonalds on Islay, the castle became the center of power for the Campbells of Cawdor until they moved to the Islay House at Brigend in 1677. It is thought that a prehistoric fort also preceded the castle here.
To get to the fort, you drive past Lagavulin and take the first right (unmarked). There is a small parking lot from which you can sally out to the castle ruins. You also have a grand view to the Lagavulin Distillery.
Finalggan was the site from which the Lords of the Isle ruled their updated version of the older Dal Riatta kingdom from. The site is a few miles up the hill from the ferry port of Port Askaig and about a mile west from the village of Ballygrant. There never was a town here only a few buildings of which there is only a few remains left. Towns never played a big part in Celtic tradition. Two island just off the north shore of Loch Finlaggan were where the Lords held their 'capital'. Both islands were developed from earlier crannogs. The larger one, Eilean Mor, has the remains of a house and a chapel. The smaller crannog (crannogs are prehistoric manmade islets), Eilean na Comhairle, was where the Lord brought his Council of the Islands together when deciding on policies for their Hebridean world.
Across the northwestern shore of the loch is the ruins of a village that was abandoned during the Clearances. A third small crannog can be found at the south end of the loch. This was thought to be used as a prison by the Lord of the Isles. There is a small visitor center at the parking area (not open when I was there due to the care keeper being ill). Royal Army soldiers were redoing the causeways out to the islands and they shooed me away before I could get too immersed in the site.
Two ships carrying American troops to the battlefields of the First World War went down off the shores of Islay in the months of 1918. Feb 5th saw the SS Tuscania torpedoed four miles off the Mull of Oa peninsula. Luckily, the weather was decent enough and most of the 2397 men aboard survived, but some 266 died, many due to accidents when the inexperienced crew dumped a couple of lifeboats. On Oct 6th, another ship collided with the Otranto which was carrying some 665 American troops (the Otranto had been fitted out to carry 18000 troops!) in 40 foot high seas and force 11 winds. The death toll that day was 431 men, the worst convoy disaster of the First World War. Read chapter seven from Andrew Jeffords fine book, 'Peat, Smoke and spirit' for an excellent account of these two incidents and other shipwrecks off Islay's coasts. In remembrance of the American lives lost, the American Red Cross erected a monument in the shape and size of a lighthouse. The monument can be seen from a large part of the island standing alone atop the cliffs at the end of the Oa peninsula. The familiar poem inscribed atteh bottom of the inscription is found at many American military cemeteries, "The Bivouac of the Dead".
To get to the monument, you take the single lane road south from Port Ellen towards Mull of Oa. Driving through pastoral and rolling country of the Oa peninsula - much emptier now than before the Clearances sent its people packing for Nova Scotia - you will eventually come to a parking spot. The monument is about one boggy mile away and the area is a nature reserve that sheep happen to browse in. The cliffs, the views, the monument and the memories evoking are all powerful stuff.
Driving on for six miles past the Ardbeg Distillery on a single lane road - something very few people seem to do - you come to a lane leading off to the right taking you a short ways to the ruins of the Kildalton parish church. Set among the graves is a magnificent ringed Celtic cross of the 8th century in a much more intact form than its more weathered cousin at Kilnave by Loch Gruineart. This is the only unbroken early Celtic Christian circle cross in Scotland. Sitting in its lovely, lonely location only adds to the mystery. The church dates to the 13th century - thus the cross was already some five hundred years old by the time the church was erected - and inside you will find some fairly well-preserved medieval grave slabs. the armored effigy is a16th century MacIan and at the other end of the church you can find the grave of one Charles MacArthur - died 1696 - whose slab presents a long gun of the period, his powder horn and dog.
Islay is a major wintering spot for huge numbers of geese who spend their summers in Greenland. Estimates of 15000 white-fronted and 40000 barnacle geese have been given. The geese come from near the end of September and stay through mid-April. They like to spend their day's out chowing in farmers' fields and flock together at night here in at the loch. The loch is about four miles long and is very shallow. You can purchase prime oysters from a producer on the southeast corner of the loch at Craigens. On the southwestern corner, you find - at Aoradh - a center run by the RSPB which will give you loads of information on all of the bird life of the loch. There is also a hide a short ways up the Kilnave road from which you can get closer to the natural aviary and add to that bird list you have been keeping.
RSPB Nature Reserve Visitor Centre open 1000-1700
A mile further west from the Kilchoman Distillery is the ruins of another parish church set amongst another graveyard with another great example of a standing Celtic cross - this one dating to the 14th or 15th century. Kilchoman was one of the residences of the Lord of the Isles though nothing remains. There are four hollows on the base of the cross’ base stone. At one corner, there is a pear-shaped stone sitting inside the hollow. Lift it and you will find a few coins in the water, sitting there for luck. Supposedly, if you turn the stone your chances of having a boy increase. You probably already have to be pregnant for this tradition to kick in, however.
There are a couple of nearby medieval grave slabs as well. The slab with the priest next to the southeast corner of the church is the traditional gravesite for Sir Lachlan Maclean.
On the west side of Loch Gruineart, a mile or two from the road end, you'll notice an old roofless abandoned parish church out in the pastures on the loch side. Go through a cattle gate, shutting it behind you, and walk over to the church which sits in an active graveyard. The church dates to about the 12th century - Kilnave means 'church of the saint' though which saint is not known - and is remembered for what happened after the Battle of Traigh Gruineart in 1598 when a force of lightly armed Macleans were forced inside by a force of Macdonalds. The Macleans were locked inside and burnt alive. So much for sanctuary.
Standing in front of the church is an impressive free-standing Celtic cross dating back to the 8th century. The cross shows a lot of weathering and is chipped on its terminals. As you stand there in the dashing winds off the North Atlantic remember that cross has been standing there for 1200 years.
On your way out, take care of the cows. One started following me and then a whole herd started prancing after me as I made my way back over the pastures. I had to convince them that they were better off eating grass in their own pasture than hitching a ride back into town with me.
Lagavulin began operation one year after its neighbors, Laphroaig and Ardbeg, in 1816. The distillery occupies a magical location on Lagavulin Bay. Rocky crags protect the bay's entrance with a prehistoric fort on the southern rocks and the ruins of a medieval castle - Dunyvaig - on the north. Lagavulin has a very strong name among whisky aficionados and they can be slightly more expensive than others. They are definitely an Islay whisky with both the peat and the sea shining through. The whisky is distilled here but the aging and bottling is done off-island in central Scotland. Lagavulin is part of the Diageo world, a group that not only runs several other Scottish distilleries (like Talisker on Skye and Caol Isla another Islay) and many other drink types (ie Guiness, Tanqueray, Smirnoff, Jose Cuervo, Tusker, Red Stripe among just a few brands), they also run the Port Ellen malting plant which produces malts for most of the Islay distilleries.
Tour times: 930, 1115, 1430