Welcome to Isle Of Islay
The most southerly of Scotland's Inner Hebridean islands, Islay is famed for its numerous whisky distilleries, beaches, historical sites and unspoilt natural beauty. It is a fairly sizeable island, 25 miles north to south and 20 east to west. Across the thin stretch of water known as the Sound of Islay lies the sparsely populated Isle of Jura with its famed mountains, the Paps of Jura. On a clear day the southern extremes of the island afford views across to Ireland. Islay can be reached by ferry, from Oban via Colonsay, or from Kintyre near Tarbert; regular flights also arrive from Glasgow.
Claggan Beach, Isle of Islay
It is a very modern idea that rivers, lochs and seas are natural barriers. For thousands of years the waterways of Scotland were thoroughfares; the highways along which the agents of trade, politics and warfare made their passage. Islay, which dominated the seaways north and south along the western coast, was for centuries during the medieval period the hub of a considerable sea borne empire.
The people who would be at the centre of this empire owed their origins to many waves of migration. The first major group were called Celts by the Romans; they themselves owed their origins to waves of migration of such peoples as Iberian Celts, Beaker people, and Gaels from Ireland. Their archaeological legacy include stone circles (such as that at Cultoon), standing stones (such as at Ballinabay) and crannogs (like that on Loch Allallaidh). The second group were the Vikings, who started to settle the islands and coastal areas of Scotland from around the 9th century. The Vikings succeeded in wrenching the islands from the control of the newly founded Scottish kingdom and laid the foundations for the fierce independence of the Western Isles, led from Islay.
The final phase of rebellion against the Viking overlords began with the warrior Somerled (c.1113-1164). With a Viking mother and Celtic father he was probably typical of those inhabitants of Scotland's western reaches in the 12th century. His rebellion against the Scandinavians is believed to have broken their power in the islands. In 1263, when Scotland defeated the Vikings at Largs to reclaim the islands it was the descendants of Somerled, the MacDonalds, who were granted the Isles as vassals of the Scottish king. In reality, they were to rule their domain as an independent kingdom for almost 400 years. The Lords of the Isles, as they became known, were anointed in a manner befitting ancient Celtic Kings, made use of a galley derived from that of the Vikings for trade, war and politics and were constantly in conflict with the Scottish crown as they sought to expand their empire east.
The man made islands, or crannogs, of Eilean Mor and Eilean na Comhairle on Finlaggan Loch, on Islay, were the site of capital of the Lordship of the Isles, where the Lords met kings of Scotland, England and France on equal terms. While the children and wives of the Lords are buried here the Lords themselves are thought to be buried on Iona. Today the site has a visitor centre which helps to explain the site's remarkable story. On the largest of the two islands, Eilean Mor, lies the ruin of a church and a number of beautifully carved stone grave markers. Eilan Mor is linked to a smaller, man made, island, Eilean na Comhairle by an underwater causeway. Also known as Council Island, this was the location of the Council of the Isles.
Bowmore Whisky Distillery
The ambition of the Lords of the Isles would eventually be their undoing. In 1462, Lord John MacDonald II signed a treaty with Edward IV of England in which he agreed to assist the English king in conquering Scotland in return for recognition of the Lords' independence. In 1493, this treason was uncovered and the MacDonlads and their descendants forfeited their lands to the Scots king. Since then the heir to the throne of Scotland has held the title; currently Prince Charles holds the title of Lord of the Isles.
The loyalty to the Scottish Royal House of Stewart which was founded in 1493 proved to be a tragic trait of islanders such as those of Islay after the dynasty was ousted in 1688. The islanders' part in the subsequent failed Jacobite rebellions did not encourage the new ruling elite to look favourably upon them after they had consolidated their victory at the battle of Culloden. Famine and land clearance in the 19th century were ignored, or worse supported, by successive governments; at the dawn of the 19th century Islay had a population of 18000 yet by the end of the century this had fallen to a couple of thousand. Today the welcoming inhabitants of Islay number a little over 4000. Population is mainly concentrated in the scenic coastal towns such as the pretty Bowmore, Port Askaig and Port Ellen.