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Scotland's Hebrides Islands, off its west coast, offer a wonderful range of different sights and experiences.

Our Scotland's Islands and Highlands Tour takes you 8 islands (via 11 ferry crossings and a steam train ride), giving you a great time seeing much of the Inner and Outer Hebrides as well as time in the Highlands.

Here is one person's account of her experiences on our 2010 tour.

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Scotland's Islands & Highlands Tour Diary

Day 3 :  On the Isle of Islay

The Kildalton Cross, dating to the 8th century, on Islay

Islay - the ancient home of the MacDonalds - Lords of the Isles - is better known these days as being the home of seven extraordinary distilleries.

Part of an 11 day/page trip diary - click the links on the right hand side for the other days in this diary.



Jeanette and her husband Ken were on our 2010 Scotland's Islands and Highlands Tour, and Jeanette kept a detailed day by day diary of the tour.

She has very graciously allowed it to be re-published here, so as to allow you an unvarnished view into what the tour was all about.

The text is hers, which I've respected and not changed apart from a few subheadings and extra paragraph breaks and some Americanizations of her English spelling (they are from New Zealand).

I've sourced the pictures and their captions are also from me, not Jeanette.

You can follow along with her narration by tracking the tour on this tour itinerary page and the linked Google maps.

I hope this will encourage you to come on our 2011 Scotland's Islands and Highlands Tour.

Day 3 – Wednesday June 16th 2010 – On the Isle of Islay

Google Touring Map for the Day

I woke up at 7am after a restless night on the very narrow bed. Breakfast at 8am when Ken had a full Scottish breakfast again and I had fried eggs and sausage. We shared a pot of hot chocolate while I tried a piece of brown toast with their home made marmalade made with whisky, it was yummy.

The bus left at 10am for the 25 minute drive to Finlaggan, the ancient seat of the Lords of the Isles. We had to wait for a few minutes (until 10:30am) for the exhibition centre to open where we had time for a quick look around a very interesting and well laid out small exhibition.

Diary author Jeanette, her husband Ken, and another group member on bicycle bringing up the rear, all at Finlaggan.

We then walked out to see the ruins on the small island where, in the Middle Ages, the MacDonald's ruled the Hebrides and large areas of the west coast of Scotland as Lords of the Isles. They were descended from Somerled, a 12th century prince, and these lords, the chiefs of Clan Donald, chose Finlaggan as their home and the centre of their lordship, so that Islay is often referred to as the Cradle of Clan Donald. The Lords of the Isles ruled the islands and part of the west coast of Scotland, from Kintyre to Lewis, virtually independent of royal control. The heir to a strong Gaelic and Norse tradition, the Lord of the Isles was one of the most powerful figures in the country with the small islands in Loch Finlaggan a centre of symbolic and administrative importance.

Stinging nettles are the leaves with pointy edges, dock leaves are the rounded leaf plants.

There were a number of buildings that have been excavated on the island with information panels describing the original use of the buildings. We bought a book on Finlaggan (3.00).

Hilda (originally from England) identified some Stinging Nettle plants and then pointed out Dock plants which always grow nearby as the Dock leaves are a natural antidote to the sting from the nettles.

We were meant to leave at 10:55am but we were not all onboard until 11:10am with David saying 'This is NOT to happen again'.

We drove back to Bowmore to collect the 3 remaining passengers then drove to Port Ellen past a Malting Company who provide malting to distilleries who do not want to make their own malting (germination of the barley). We passed acres of peat fields and could see someone cutting peat and putting it onto a wagon pulled by a tractor.

The lovely peaceful ruined church and cross at Kildalton.

From Port Ellen we drove North along the coast to see the Kildalton Cross. It was a lovely sunny day now as the clouds had cleared and there was no wind. After passing the village of Ardbeg, we continued on a narrow winding single track road with trees growing overhead, scratching the roof of the coach. We arrived at the ancient 8th century cross in an old church yard. It was 10 feet high made of very weather resistant stone. Thanks to Jay for getting us there safely as the church ruins and graveyard were very interesting and worth the drive. There were graves as recent as 1923 so families were still living in this area in recent times. I took a photo of Jay beside the cross to prove to him that he had made the journey.

The Lagavulin Distillery.

We left about 12:30pm and stopped at the Ardbeg distillery for lunch in their cafe. We had fun conversations with Jay, Malcolm and Ieva, sitting outside in the sun. One of the Whisky writers, Jim Murray, believes this is the best distillery in Scotland. On our way back towards Port Ellen we stopped for photos at the Lagavulin distillery, especially as they make Malcolm and David's favourite Whisky. We later passed another distillery, the Laphroaig. David told us a great story about the prohibition era in the USA. When most of the distilleries in Scotland were going out of business (the USA was their largest market), only one managed to sell their whisky legally to the USA because it was marketed as a medication.

We drove back across the peat plains. The road was very straight but very undulating as it was built on the peat. Oren was very interested to see one of the new micro jets sitting on the Port Ellen airport apron. Our next stop was at Loch Gruinart RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) centre. It covers 4,000 acres of which 250 acres are salt marches. 50% of the world's Greenland White Fronted Geese nest here. There have been over 24,000 geese on the ground at one time. There are 24 species of butterflies and dragonflies. We arrived about 2:25pm but did not see any birds except a lot of black Crows and one lovely large colourful Pheasant. David offered anyone who wanted to stay here instead of going to the next distillery that Jay would come back for us but as Ken and I were the only ones who were interested we decided to stay with the group. After about 20 minutes, we boarded the coach again and drove to the Bruichladdich distillery where Ken and I were glad we had made the decision to visit yet another distillery. This one was the best of the lot.

We were welcomed with a dram of Octomore whisky, 87.00 a bottle. Ken and I shared a glass of this extremely smoky (140 ppm) whisky and were fascinated to find the flavour changed (actually improved) each time we added a little bit of water (as told to by the Manager). I still said it was not my favourite drink unless you added cream to it – Baileys Irish Cream is whisky based. We were given a very interesting tour of the distillery by the Manager, Duncan McGillivray. The shaft of the Mash Tun broke last week and it has to be specially manufactured in Glasgow. There is no template or plans for it as it was made in 1881. The wooden Mill is also very old made in 1930. When the water is put into the Mash Tun they use a float in the tank connected to a string with a weight on the other end. As the water level rises the weight moves down showing them how much is present. They call this their 'computer'. Their original washbacks were made of Canadian Pine while their new one is made of Douglas Fir. They were installing a new distiller to make Gin to get a quicker payback.

They fill their casks with 70% proof spirit in the hope that over the up to 40 years it sits in the cask it will not drop below 40% proof. Below that level it cannot be sold as Whisky. Most distilleries cask at 63.5% proof. They have their own bottling plant which is unusual on the island. It can bottle 2,000 bottles per hour. They were currently bottling 17 year old Rum from Trinidad which had been held in special casks here for about 3 years. It then could be sold as their own Rum.

Ubermeister whisky guru Jim McEwan and Bruichladdich's Distillery Manager Duncan McGillivray gave us whisky samples straight out of the barrel.

They were getting ready to bottle their own 18 year old Whisky at 46% proof alcohol. We went into the cask room where we met the Master Distiller, Jim McEwan, who entertained us with wonderful stories of the business and the staff. The company used to be owned by Jim Beam Co who closed it but it was re-purchased in 2001. Now all employees are shareholders. They sell some of their malt barley to a perfume company. Duncan poured out a dram of whisky from their 1997 cask. I was really enjoying it and thought I might be able to finish it but while I was taking photos Duncan topped it up again which was way too much for me. We next were given a dram of 9 year old Guadalupe Rum which had been in a wine cask for a year. Not as nice as the whisky.

David filling his own bottle of whisky straight from the barrel at Bruichladdich.

By 5:15pm we left the cask room and went back to the shop where Duncan poured out more drams. Ken got a 16 year old whisky with a lighter smoky flavour. I was getting very used to whisky by now so shared Ken's. We were also given chocolates with whisky centers, yummy. We finally said goodbye to Jim and Duncan after watching David decant his own bottle of whisky from a special festival cask in the shop and watched Duncan cork, cap and label it. It cost David 55.

We left at 5:40pm to drive back around the bay to Bowmore, which we could see from the distillery. There were free ranging cows and heifers along the road which made us slow down at times. We first stopped at the Harbour Inn to drop off the people staying there, then up to the Bowmore Hotel for the rest of us. We had an hour to get ready for dinner at 7pm at the Harbour Inn. David had been very gracious in giving 6 of us his booking for the evening at the Harbour Inn. He was going to eat elsewhere with some of our party. We walked to the Inn with Anne-Marie and Ted (she from Switzerland and he from England and they now live in Arizona) and met Billy Jo and Jeannette in the very pleasant lounge.

Ken and I enjoyed a glass of Magners Cider in the lounge while we perused the menu and ordered our meal. When the first course was ready we were called to our table. Ken had Venison slices with a salad while I had Haddock Chowder, both very nice. Ken then had local salmon and I had Islay Scallops on black pudding slices and pea puree. I gave the black pudding to Ken who was very pleased. The table shared bowls of courgettes, carrots and potato.

The salmon was very moist but not crisp on the skin as it was in the Indian restaurant last night. My scallops were nice but not as large and juicy as New Zealand scallops. Ken and I did not have dessert but we stayed at the table while Jeannette, Billie-Jo and Anne-Marie all had dessert. We all enjoyed each other's company with lively conversation until, while waiting for dessert to be delivered, a large group of Germans arrived taking a set of tables right down one half of the small dining room. We could not hear each other talk very well after that so we were glad to leave when the desserts were finished (60.85).

We were back at our hotel about 9:30pm. Ken had a very sore tendon in the back of his right foot making him hobble home. No idea how it happened. We packed our bags for the morning then both had showers before ringing Mum again in NZ. I had a nice chat with her then lights out by midnight.

Read more in the rest of Jeanette's Diary

See the links to each day of the eleven day tour/trip diary at the top right of this page.


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Originally published 7 Jan 2011, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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