Nicknamed the “Queen of the Hebrides”, Islay remains one of the most popular islands for visitors to Scotland. The southernmost island of the region whose neighbour to the west is the Northern Irish coast, Britain’s eighth-largest island has plenty of hidden gems beyond the tourist hotspots to explore – these are our favourites.
Named for the wife of its founder, Port Ellen is the largest town on Islay and home to its large malting industry, providing this key ingredient to the island’s many distilleries. Visitors to Islay itself will be greeted by the sunny harbour of Port Ellen before they even step off the ferry, as its terminal is based here and makes an excellent gateway to the rest of the island.
Overlooking Lagavulin Bay on Islay’s southside, Dunyvaig Castle is a former noble naval base dating back to the 12th century. Though now only the ruins remain of its 16th-century refurbishment, elements of the original castle can still be explored, including a courtyard and a fortified tower.
Though slightly smaller than some of Islay’s other beaches, Singing Sands is nevertheless one of its most magical. Found just south of the Carraig Fhada Lighthouse, the beach gets its unique name from the sound the sand makes when you rub the soles of your shoes over it. Well worth a visit if only to try and recreate that beautiful sound.
Considered the de facto capital of Islay, Bowmore is one of Islay’s larger towns. Giving its name to the nearby famous distillery, the town sits on the shore of Loch Indaal. Alongside a variety of boutiques, shops and restaurants, Bowmore is also known for its local round church, designed to give evil spirits no corner to hide in.
A sea loch on Islay’s north coast, Loch Gruinart sits within the Gruinart Flats, a nature reserve cared for by the RSPB. The loch is an important spot for barnacle geese during the winter months and was also at the centre of several notable historic battles, including the Battle of Traigh Ghruinneart.
Considered one of the most idyllic locations on the island, Kilnave Chapel and Cross is a quiet shoreline spot overlooking Loch Gruinart to the East. The site is bordered by beaches and is home to the ruins of a stone chapel and cross dating back to the 14th century.
Found on Islay’s west coast, Machir Bay is part of the Rhinns of Islay. A large, rocky beach surrounds the top of the bay and has been the site of multiple significant shipwrecks over time, including the wreck of the HMS Otranto during WWI, one of the worst naval accidents of the conflict.
Producing single-malt Scottish whisky, Kilchoman is the island’s only distillery that uses traditional farm distilling methods. Everything is produced at their homestead, including their base ingredients. Opened in 2005, Kilchoman was also the first new distillery to open on Islay in 124 years.
One of the most popular Islay spots for swimming, Laggan Bay is a beach that stretches for around five miles. Particularly popular with families during the warmer months, some aspects are more exposed than others – and are therefore also popular with surfers looking to test their skills.