Island of whisky, wool and wildlife

You name it, they have it on Islay: old-fashioned weaving, golden sands, rare birds and seals that like human voices
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Indy Lifestyle Online
According to the locals they use the fire-engines at Islay airport to check the runway for stray sheep. Be that as it may, landing at Glenegedale by plane is a totally different experience to our normal understanding of modern air travel. There is no queuing or security, nor are there announcements over the tannoy at this tiny island airport - and the firemen unload the baggage by hand.

Islay was briefly in the headlines two years ago when Prince Charles crash-landed his plane during a royal visit. It is an enchanting place. The most southerly link in the Hebridean chain of islands, it has a climate much milder than that of most of the northern region, due to its position in the Gulf Stream. Historically it has been better cared for than most of the island communities and as a result is less barren and has areas of lush and productive farmland.

The administrative capital is Bowmore. It is a fine looking town on Loch Indaal and one of the earliest to be built on a grid system. It is dominated by an 18th-century round church (so the devil can't hide in the corners) and the pagoda towers of Bowmore distillery. The prettiest villages on Islay, though, are on the Rhinns, the western arm of the island. Portnahaven and Port Wemyss cluster around a sheltered harbour protected by the tiny island of Orsay. In the interests of economy these two villages share a church, but each has its own path and entrance.

Port Charlotte, further north, has two excellent museums: The Islay Field Centre and The Museum of Islay Life. Here some intriguing objects are on display - an illegal whisky still and the shoes worn by the horses that "mowed" the lawn at Islay House, the principal mansion on the island. Port Ellen, on the east side of the island, is a picturesque port built by the laird of Islay - Walter Frederick of Shawfield - at the beginning of the 19th century and named after his wife.

For those wanting to go shopping, Tormisdale Croft between Port Charlotte and Portnahaven has hand-knitted woollens. It is one of the few places in Scotland where you can still see traditional spinning and naturally dyed wool (nettle, meadowsweet and thistle are just some of the plants used for dyes). The Islay Woollen Mill near Bridgend makes tweed regarded as among the best in the country. The cloth for Braveheart and Rob Roy and a clutch of other Hollywood movies was made there on two Victorian looms.

Beachcombers will be in their element on Islay and should go equipped with an Ordnance Survey map which marks all the sandy shorelines. The beaches have pale golden sand and are almost deserted. The Big Strand at Laggan Bay is seven miles long and is not to be confused with The Strand at the top of Loch Indaal, the preferred haunt of the locals. At Claggain Bay the beach has pebbles in the most beautiful colours. Kilchoman beach at Machir Bay has spectacular raised beaches and Tayovullin on the western shore of Loch Gruinart is known for its dunes. It is also a favourite spot for seals which are said to be attracted in shore by the sound of voices, particularly the high-pitched chatter of children.

There's plenty more wildlife - with over 200 species of birds, the rare corncrake and chough in particular. Islay is the wintering ground for two thirds of the world population of Greenland Barnacle geese and a third of the Greenland White-fronted geese. In previous years they have caused much anxiety and loss of income to farmers by eating the shoots of young grass. However, a goose subsidy has now been introduced to compensate farmers for their losses. This necessitates the employment of two full time "goose-counters" during the winter as the subsidy is calculated per goose.

If the living don't appeal, try the dead. Among a wealth of archaeological sites on the island, Finlaggan is the most significant. It was the headquarters of the Macdonald Lords of the Isles, who ruled the north-western seaboard until they were forced to forfeit their lands and titles to James IV of Scotland in 1493. There is a small visitor's centre and in the summer an archaeological team from the National Museums of Scotland may be found working on the site. There are the Iron Age forts of Dun Nosebridge and Dun Choisprig to be explored and standing stones from the Bronze Age, of which the 16ft monolith at Ballinby is the finest example. The Vikings colonised Islay, followed by the Norse and there are still traces of their deserted farms and villages etched on the landscape. But it was the early Christians who left the finest legacy in the form of several exquisitely carved stone crosses. The High Cross of Kildalton, dating from about AD800, is the best known but the Kilchoman cross from about AD1400 is also worth seeing.

Last but not least, no visit to Islay would be complete without a comprehensive study of the Islay malt whiskies - Lagavulin, Bunnahabhain, Laphroaig, Bowmore and Caol Ila. Learn to pronounce them before you try them... Guided tours can be arranged to all the distilleries - Bowmore's is probably the slickest as they have set up a smart visitors centre and shop, but you might prefer something a little less polished.

How to get there

You can reach Islay on the Caledonian MacBayne ferry from Kennacraig. There is also a daily flight on British Airways (0345 222111) from Glasgow and nearby islands.

Who to ask

The Scottish Tourist Boad is at 17 Cockspur Street, London SW1Y 5BL (0171- 930 8661). They sell an unlimited travel ticket for railway journeys to and within Scotland. Or try the Tourist Information Centre, 3 Princes Street, Edinburgh EH2 2QP (0131-557 1700). The Islay Tourist Board is on 01496 810 254.

Six of the best things to do around Islay

Catch the ferry to Colonsay (Wednesday only, 10 April - 9 October). Here you can explore Kiloran Bay and the gardens of Kiloran.

Make a pilgrimage to George Orwell's house in Jura (Regular ferries to Jura from Port Askaig throughout the day). While you're there, visit the gardens of Jura House where there's an excellent shoreline walk with views over to Islay. The Jura Fell Race (up and down the three Paps of Jura) takes place on 25 May.

Play a round of golf at Islay's Machrie 18-hole golf course.

Go pony trekking from Rockside Farm, Bruichladdich - riding on the beach at Machir Bay and on the cliff tops above Kilchoman.

Explore the sea from the Islay Dive Centre at Port Ellen.

Visit the Islay Festival this year which takes place from 24 May to June 8 (01496 302413 for more details).