Islay, Jura and Colonsay
Islay, Jura and Colonsay make up the most southerly Hebridean island group and are famed for their outstanding wildlife, glorious sandy beaches, fascinating historical treasures, rugged hills and dramatic coastlines, and – on Jura, but especially on Islay – legendary distilleries which produce distinctively peaty whisky.
This book aims to help you get the most from your visit to these islands. Most of the 40 walks are a half day or shorter, with many suitable for families, but there are also a few more challenging hillwalks for those who can’t resist the allure of reaching an island summit.
96 pages / 105mm x 148mm / step inside the guide
Islay, Jura and Colonsay
Islay, Jura and Colonsay make up the most southerly Hebridean island group. The most southerly island group of the Hebrides, Islay, Jura and Colonsay have much to tempt the walker and traveller. Regular ferry services make this splendidly isolated group easy to reach, and the journey is rewarded by outstanding birdlife and wildlife, sandy beaches often bathed in sunshine, rugged hills, dramatic coastlines, fascinating historic treasures and – on Jura, but even more so on Islay – renowned whisky distilleries. You could easily spend a week on each of these islands and still leave many places unexplored, or a longer stay on Islay would allow enjoyable daytrips by boat to both Jura and Colonsay.
Featuring 40 walks, this volume aims to help you get the most from your visit to these islands. Most of the walks are a half day or shorter, with many suitable for families, but the guide also includes a few more challenging hillwalks for those who can’t resist the allure of reaching an island summit.
As you would expect, coastal walks dominate, with a rich variety – from wide sandy beaches such as Machir Bay on Islay or Kiloran Bay on Colonsay to stunning sea arches and the spectacular Soldier’s Rock off Islay. Other routes explore the history of the islands, taking in sights such as the celebrated Kildalton Cross near Port Ellen or the sobering American Monument towering high above the seas on the Mull of Oa. The routes include the ascent to the highest points on all three islands – Islay’s rough Beinn Bheigier, the stony but awesome Beinn an Oir of the fabled Paps of Jura, and little known Carnan Eoin on Colonsay. The routes are divided into five chapter areas, three of them on the larger Islay with a chapter each on Jura and Colonsay to complete the guide.
Although most of these walks are termed moderate, they often cross rough, pathless terrain and many of the routes can be wet underfoot. Choose sturdy footwear and carry waterproof clothing. The sketch map accompanying each walk is meant as an outline guide rather than a navigational aid, so for all but the most straightforward routes an Ordnance Survey map should be taken as well. The ascents of the Paps of Jura and Beinn Bheigier on Islay are proper mountain expeditions requiring hillwalking equipment and navigation skills.
Scotland has fantastic access rights, some of the most progressive in Europe, thanks to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. This gives walkers the right of access over most land away from residential buildings and gardens. It is balanced with a set of responsibilities set out in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. On all three islands, sheep and cattle often graze on unfenced land or in fields along walking routes, and groundnesting birds are abundant. Therefore, dogs must be kept under strict control, especially in spring and early summer and whenever livestock is present. Even an encounter with a friendly dog can cause a ewe to abort a lamb and there have been cases of sheep being driven over cliffs by a free-running dog. Keep well away from cows with calves if you have a dog. The website outdooraccess-scotland.com has some useful advice on responsible behaviour, including wild camping. Deer stalking takes place on the hills (particularly on Jura) between 1 July and 20 October. Ticks and midges can be a hazard during the summer months. The best precautions are to cover up by wearing long-sleeved tops and trousers, use insect repellent and check yourself thoroughly for ticks every evening, using a tick twister to remove any from yourself and any canine companions.
Caledonian MacBrayne (Calmac) operates regular ferries to Islay from Kennacraig on the Kintyre peninsula. The journey takes up to 2 hours 20 minutes to reach either Port Ellen or Port Askaig on Islay. A bus from Glasgow connects with the ferry at Kennacraig. Flybe operate direct flights from Glasgow and Hebridean Air Services run flights from Oban to Islay. Once on Islay, the bus operates a circular route along the main roads, taking in Port Ellen, the airport, Bowmore, Bridgend, Port Askaig, Port Charlotte and Portnahaven. Check the timetable as it changes during school holidays, and no buses run on Sundays.
From Port Askaig on Islay it is just a 10-minute ferry ride to Jura. The council-run ferry runs hourly and Port Askaig is a 40-minute drive along the length of Islay from Port Ellen. There is a regular bus from the ferry to Craighouse and north to Inverlussa; check the timetable at the Garelochhead Coaches website. There are no buses on Sundays and the early bus only runs by request during school holidays and on Saturdays. There is also a summer passenger ferry from Tayvallich most days which takes under an hour and can carry bikes by arrangement. Colonsay is served by a ferry three days a week from Oban; some of these ferries run on to Islay and Kennacraig and enable a daytrip to Colonsay from Islay once a week in the summer. Hebridean Air Services operate flights twice a week from Oban and Islay. Most people do not take a car to Colonsay as the island is fairly compact, and bike hire is available.
The mild winter climate has made Islay a popular destination for overwintering birds and this triggers a parallel migration of birdwatchers to the island. More than 37,000 barnacle geese and 13,000 white-fronted geese make Islay their winter home. These are easy to spot as they feed on Islay’s rich farmland between October and April each year. With more than 200 species of bird on the island, the RSPB reserve at Loch Gruinart is an excellent place to start any birdwatching trip as there is an information centre, hides overlooking the water and wetlands where you can easily watch the wildfowl and perhaps spot a hen harrier or otter.
Islay is one of the few places on the British Isles where the rare chough breeds; Ardnave Point is a great place to see this red-legged corvid flying in small flocks. Breeding seabirds can be found on many of the higher cliffs on the islands, the Mull of Oa being a particularly dramatic spot. In summer months the elusive corncrake is on many birdwatchers’ tick lists; their rasping call is heard much more easily than the bird is spotted – keep an ear and eye out around patches of nettles and flag iris on the edge of farmland. Colonsay and Jura are also good places to watch raptors and seabirds.
The coastlines of all three islands provide a rich habitat for seals and otters. Red deer are found on parts of Islay but, for guaranteed sightings, Jura is your island where the animals are said to outnumber the human population by 30 to 1.
History and culture
Islay and Colonsay are dotted with signs of very early human habitation, some dating back to 8000bc, including the remains of a roundhouse, numerous standing stones, early Celtic crosses, and also forts and other remains dating back to the Iron Age. At a time when the seas were the world’s highways, Islay’s position sitting far west between mainland Scotland and Ireland made it an important settlement.
When Norse invaders and traders arrived many stayed and the islands came under Norse control, ruled from the Isle of Man. This remained the case until the descendants of Somerled took control and used Finlaggan on Islay as their base. Here the MacDonald chiefs ruled as the Lords of the Isles from the 12th century for almost 400 years. From the early 1600s the Campbells ruled Islay and Jura, their dominance lasting well into the 20th century, a time of mass emigration fuelled by the Clearances, food and work shortages and the opportunities offered elsewhere. The First and Second World Wars also took their toll on the populations of the islands, though there has been a revival in the fortunes of all three islands in recent years.
One of the big draws for visitors to Islay and Jura today are the nine distilleries. Thought to have been introduced to the islands by Irish monks in the 14th century, Islay is particularly well suited to whisky production, with copious quantities of water, peat for fuel, and fertile land for growing barley. Today Islay’s eight distilleries produce more than 20 million litres of whisky a year. Not to be outdone, Colonsay now has a thriving brewery producing real ales. In addition to the whisky industry, farming and crofting, supplemented with other work, and tourism are the mainstays of the local economy.