Queen of the Hebrides
Explore Islay’s rich history and the island’s abundance of wildlife and whisky
Islay, the ‘Queen of the Hebrides’, sits proudly off the west coast of Scotland. From rolling sand dunes to towering sea cliffs, this truly is an island of contrasts. Benefiting from the warmth of the Gulf Stream, Islay’s climate is mild, like its seasons, and generous rainfall sustains abundant greenery. Due to the presence of Lochs Gruinart and Indaal in the north and south respectively, Islay has a long coastline of stunning beaches and precarious cliffs, fringing machair, moor, farm and woodland, and is ever popular with artists and photographers.
The Big Strand, spanning over seven miles, is the longest uninterrupted beach on the island. Stretching from Laggan Point to the Oa Peninsula, the beach is exposed to the elements, making it a bracing but nevertheless popular walk. The sheer size of The Big Strand affords visitors a degree of privacy not offered by many other beaches, making it a hotspot in summer. On a smaller scale, Killinallan Point, with its sunbleached sands and cerulean waters, is the epitome of a Hebridean beach, and on a clear day the Isle of Mull can be seen across the waters.
In contrast to the sweeps of sand, formidable cliffs overhang the coastline. Notably, the unforgiving wildness of the island can be observed at the Mull of Oa, where the cliffs rise to 200m at its most southerly point, Beinn Mhor (literally ‘big hill’). Oa is the site of the American Monument, erected in 1920 to memorialise those lost in the Tuscania and Ontario ship disasters in the year 1918. Regrettably, Islay has seen many ships wrecked on its shores; ferocious winds and strong currents have proven fatal for many vessels.
While Islay’s human population sits at around 3,000, it is famed for its bird population of more than 200 species, 100 of which breed here. The multitude and range of habitats allow for a wide variety of birds to thrive, and the convenience of so many birds existing in one location proves tantalising to many ornithologists. The abundance of the population is such that one isn’t required to go birdwatching to observe a satisfying amount of birdlife yearround. For the more avid birdwatcher, there is an RSPB hide on Loch Gruinart located on the north coast of the island.
The Gruinart Flats, which lie at the
While Islay’s human population sits at around 3,000, it is famed for its bird population of more than 200 species, 100 of which breed on the island
head of the loch, are flooded by the RSPB to provide a habitat for waders and other birds. Created in the 1830s by diverting the river which flowed from the loch, this marshy habitat sees over 45% of the world’s Greenland barnacle goose population wintering here each year, with up to 18,000 on the flats at any one time.
This fiercely beautiful landscape possesses a legacy of lost power. In the fourteenth and fifteenth century, the islands on Loch Finlaggan functioned as the administrative centre of the Lordship of the Isles, which at the time maintained much of the highlands and islands as an independent and largely democratic society. Lords of the Isles were inaugurated here, providing an opportunity for feasting and celebration equal to that of a coronation of the time. Nowadays, ruins of sixteenth century houses lie among carpets of heather on the site of this bygone nucleus. This area holds a quieter power now than in days of old, the captivating lake views and uninterrupted tranquilli- ty creating a pocket of reality not often seen in the hubbub of modern 21st century life.
To the north of the island, the bones of Kilnave Chapel overlook Loch Gruniart. The serene beauty of this water-facing ruin masks a grisly history, where contention for the ownership of the island in 1598 saw the MacLeans burning the MacDonalds alive inside the chapel where they took refuge following the battle of Gruinart Strand. Standing tall in the grounds, a high cross bore witness to this slaughter on holy ground.
Perhaps the most iconic building on the island is Kilarrow Parish Church, known locally as “The Round Church” due to its circular design, which, according to legend is thus shaped to deny the devil a hiding spot in a place of wor-
Contention for the ownership of the island in 1598 saw the MacLeans burning the MacDonalds alive inside the chapel
Image: Carraig Fhada, Islay’s famous square lighthouse opposite Port Ellen.
Image: The 8th century Kildalton Cross stands in the graveyard of the ruined former parish church.
Image: A ringed plover, just one of 200 species of birds on the island.
Image: Kilarrow Parish Church, known as ‘The Round Church’.