Friday Focus - The Isle of Islay
After two long years of events held virtually, this week sees the welcome return of Fèis Ìle 2022!
For us, the last week in May always prompts fantastic memories of time spent on the beautiful Island of Islay. Normally, at this time we'd be excitedly disembarking the Calmac ferry from Kennacraig to the island for a week of whisky and Island life. Sadly we can't be there this year but that doesn't stop us dreaming about this beautiful island with its stunning landscape, fascinating culture and of course its remarkable people.
'Queen of the Hebrides'
Known as the 'Queen of the Hebrides' Islay is the southernmost isle of the inner Hebrides. One of Scotlands 5 main whisky producing regions, Islay is renowned for its whisky with its distinctive peat smoked flavour. Islay is a whisky lovers paradise, with all the romance and character you'd expect from an island steeped in distillation history. The whisky industry is a huge employer of the local population and the island community is intrinsic to its success.
Fèis Ìle - The Islay Festival
Visitors arriving on Islay for the very first time, could be forgiven for thinking that Fèis Ìle is all about whisky, especially given the distillery open days that dominate the festival week program. Fèis Ìle in fact started out in 1984 as a celebration of island life and Gaelic culture, to restore a sense of pride and identity amongst the local community as well as to promote the island to the wider world and encourage visitors.
Despite its significance to the island, whisky only became part of the Fèis in the early nineties with tasting events proving popular alongside the traditional ceilidhs and music events. As time went on, the distilleries themselves became more involved hosting open days, welcoming locals and visitors alike to share a dram or two whilst enjoying live music, fresh local food and warm island hospitality. The distilleries each release their own exclusive festival bottle to mark the occasion.
Islay's population triples in number during festival week and distillery days turn to Fèis nights with music and cultural events hosted in many towns and villages across the Island. The Fèis really showcases the cultural aspects of island life and provides an opportunity for local musicians, artists and creators to promote their talents to visitors. Visiting musicians from Scotland's thriving traditional music scene regularly appear and we've discovered many a great band during our years visiting Islay and danced the hours away. Ferries, accommodation and tickets for festival events get booked up fast so planning ahead is essential.
It's easy to escape the crowds and explore Islay's beautiful landscape. Islay is a delight to visit all year round when visitors are rewarded with a slower pace and introduction to 'Islay time'! The islands beautiful coastline is blessed with expanses of long sandy beaches such as those at Machir Bay, Sanaigmore and Ardtalla to name a few and aside from the occasional heard of cattle, you'll often have these places to yourself. The rugged, rocky coastline of the Oa peninsula with its stunning clifftops is a fantastic place for a walk to the American monument and If you're lucky you might spot a sea eagle. The island is rich in history, known as the home of the Lord of the Isles from the 12th to the 16th century. A trip to visit the ruins and visitor centre at Loch Finlaggan is a must, offering stunning views across the sound to the Paps of Jura.
Peat bogs run the length of the low road on Islay, between the largest settlements of Bowmore and Port Ellen. Peat is extracted here for use in the production of the island's whisky giving it its distinctive peat smoked flavour. Some of the peat is transported along the road to the nearby Maltings at Port Ellen. The Maltings, operated by Diageo opens for tours during the festival week only, allowing whisky enthusiasts a fascinating insight into the malting process on Islay.
In the 15 or so years we've been visiting, we've seen many changes. Islay's ninth distillery Ardnahoe opened its doors in 2019 and the much anticipated re-opening of mothballed Port Ellen distillery is expected very soon. Existing distilleries have expanded to become more visitor focussed in order to accommodate the growing demand from tourists. One great addition in recent years has been the introduction of the three distillery pathway, connecting the town of Port Ellen with the Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg distilleries. The 3 mile long pathway, accessible to walkers, bikes, wheelchairs and pushchairs encourages visitors to leave the car behind and take in the beautiful coastal views of the southern part of the island on foot. Ideal if you are staying in Port Ellen and plan to visit the distilleries to enjoy a dram or two.
The 'Islay wave'
One thing that remains constant on Islay is the warmth of its people. When driving on the island you can't help but notice the locals give you a friendly wave every time they pass. You quite quickly realise it's not just a case of mistaken identity. The 'Islay wave' gives you a real sense of the strength of the island community. We've been lucky to meet some real Islay characters over the years, from the warm welcome we always receive from Jackie and Emma at Ardbeg to the banter from Donald at Persabus Farm and the whisky craic from Iain McArthur at Lagavulin.
When the weather is good, it's fantastic and we've spent many a sun drenched open day at Bruichladdich and Ardbeg, sampling drams, enjoying seafood from the guys at the Seafood Shack and dancing all afternoon to the reels and sounds of the Fèis. One of our early visits was during a storm with an amber weather alert in place and ferries cancelled. We cooried inside the cosy tasting lounge at Laphroaig enjoying drams to the accompanying sound of the wind and seaspray buffering the walls of the distillery perched on the edge of the rocky coastline. For us it was a memorable almost magical experience but also a reminder of the extremes of island life and the relationship with the sea.
Islay is synonymous with whisky and whisky initially brought us to Islay but we've got to know and love this beautiful island so well over the years and can confirm there are many other equally great reasons to visit. We can't wait to return.
We'll be toasting the return of Fèis Ìle with a wee Islay dram this evening. Here's to a great week!
For our current selection of Islay drams, click here.