Queen of the He­brides

Ex­plore Is­lay’s rich his­tory and the is­land’s abun­dance of wildlife and whisky

SCOTS Heritage Magazine - - Contents - Words Claire Ma­caulay

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’.

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