Picture this: You sip a dram of peat-permeated whisky as the rain thrashes down, waves crashing against the rocks, on an island of green and gold and gray flooded in cascading clouds. You’re glad you didn’t camp on the beach tonight.
Such is a common scene in Islay, also known as “Queen of the Hebrides.” It’s a tempestuous beast in spring, with only 3,000 people living year-round on this island off the coast of Scotland, just 70 miles west of Glasgow. Come summer, however, over 45,000 tourists will descend upon it. With its green hills, golden fields, rocky beaches, turquoise waters—and lest we forget, some of the world’s finest Scotch—Islay is a whisky and outdoors lover’s dream.
Thanks to Scotland’s wild camping laws, it’s also a wonderful place to pitch a tent. Gorgeous views, high cliffs and hidden beaches make it a particularly beautiful place to hike. No one knows this better than the Scotch distillers who call the island home. Here are their favorite places to hike and sip.
“You’re never far away from lovely scenery on Islay,” says Barry MacAffer, Laphroaig’s distillery manager. But when it comes down to it, his favorite hikes include those around Beinn Bheigeir (pronounced “Ben Vicar”), which at a modest altitude of roughly 1,611 feet is the highest point in Islay. The summit provides “fantastic vantage points of the island, Mull of Kintyre and on a good day, the coast of Ireland,” he says.
Beinn Bheigeir is also a favorite of Kilchoman Distillery’s Chloe Wood and Neil McEachern. It’s “more of a hill walk, this is the biggest hill on Islay—not that high,” admits Wood. “Bit breezy but [you] can keep yourself warm with a dram of Sanaig at the top.”
Sam Hale, Caol Ila distillery manager agrees and suggests, “For even more of a challenge, it can be combined with an overnight stay if you follow the ridge over to Glas Bheinn and then down to Proaig Bothy before heading back to Claggain Bay.”
American Mount on the Mull of Oa
“I love the circular walk on the Mull of Oa to the American Monument. Whatever the weather, you are on top of the cliffs, in sync with the mountain goats and Highland cows,” offers Chairman of the Ardbeg Committee, Jackie Thomson. “It’s a place of history and wonder,” she says. “It makes you feel small, insignificant in nature, but powerful at the same time!”
McEachern agrees. “You can wander along the cliff tops and take in the beautiful views out to sea,” he adds. “There is also a poignant American Monument erected after the Tuscania was torpedoed off the coast of Islay during the war.” He adds details of the luxury American liner that was tragically sunk by German forces during World War I, claiming 200 lives.
Lily Loch, Loch Allan and Ballygrant Loch
Hale is also a fan of this circuit around three lochs. “This is something less intense and is best with a stop at the Ballygrant Inn & Restaurant for refreshments on the way back,” he says.
The loop includes a jaunt through bird-filled woodlands popular with local fishermen. The remains of a medieval crannog—an artificial island—can be seen in the water.
The Singing Sands
If a beach hike is what you’re after, consider the Singing Sands, so-named for the singing sound of the dunes when walked upon. Lagavulin Distillery Manager Jordan Paisley calls it a “nice, easy walk to a lovely beach.”
On the beach, keep a lookout for wildlife like otters, seals, eider ducks and other birds. You can also visit the unusually-shaped Carraig Fhada Lighthouse, which was commissioned in 1832 by the Laird of Islay, Walter Frederick Campbell, as a memorial to his late wife, Lady Ellinor Campbell.
Over the lighthouse’s doorway, an inscription reads in part: “Ye who mid storms and tempests stray in dangers midnight hour. Behold where shines this friendly ray and hail its guardian tower… And still, my guiding star she lives in realms of bliss above…Tis she that bids me on the steep kindle this beacon’s flame. To light the wanderer o`er the deep who safe shall bless her name.”
Wood and McEachern like Machir Bay, describing it as “more of a leisurely stroll than a hike.”
Near the start of the walk, take the time to visit the graveyard of a ruined church. On the ground is an intricately carved, 14th-century Celtic stone cross that stands more than eight feet tall. Continue on the hike past a boggy hollow, which opens up to views over the southern end of Machir Bay. Then, head down to the beach, which is “one of the most beautiful on Islay, with golden sands stretching along the coast and a view out west,” according to Wood.
Thomson is also a fan of the walk to Killinallan on the east shore of Loch Gruinart. “Past Craigens Farm, where they farm oysters, you can enjoy fabulous views and birdlife. You feel very remote and isolated, which is liberating,” Thomson says. “I might build a wee fire on the shore, cook some cockles and wrap up in a blanket to keep cozy as it gets cooler.”
Be warned: The road to Killinallan is a bit bumpy, but the scenery and wildlife make the suspension test more than worthwhile. Low tides lend views of seals basking on sandbanks early on, while seabirds can be seen enjoying the local nature’s bounty of oysters and crabs. The trek does involve some navigating, so bring boots or shoes made to get wet and be wary of patches of quicksand.
Favorite Places for a Dram
When it comes to enjoying whisky around the island, “there’s nothing quite like tasting a dram from the very place it’s produced,” says MacAffer. But outside of distilleries, he recommends stopping at Bowmore Hotel, for the “fantastic range of whiskies at the bar.”
Thomson, meanwhile, finds the best place to enjoy a dram is “anywhere outdoors! On a peat bog in the howling rain; on a [rigid inflatable boat] on the way to the Corryvreckan whirlpool; by the side of a wildfire on the beach; after a wild swim in the Atlantic Ocean; climbing Ben Bheigeir, the highest mountain on Islay; or on Kintra beach at sunset.”
If you’re looking to wet your whistle near Port Ellen, make sure to stop by No. 1 Charlotte Street, which offers both the Whisky Bar, featuring a peat-burning fire and a large selection of local bottlings, and the Public Bar, with pool, darts and a variety of local ales on tap.
The Ballygrant Inn‘s award-winning Whisky Bar also serves single-malt whiskies and local ales, alongside wines, spirits and beautiful views of the Paps of Jura—three mountains on the western side of the island of Jura—across the water.
Golf enthusiasts, meanwhile, should swing by 18 Restaurant & Bar at The Machrie after a round for their locally-sourced cuisine, large drinks menu and panoramic southwesterly sea views across its links course.
How to Get to Islay
Visitors can reach Islay by air or by ferry. There are regular flights from Glasgow, which take about 45 minutes. However, inclement weather can cause cancellations. Regular ferry services from Kennacraig to Port Ellen and Port Askaig are also available and take about two hours, while ferry service from Oban takes around four hours. Ferry services are offered by Caledonian Macbrayne.