Islay and Jura are the southernmost of the Inner Hebrides islands of Scotland and have been inhabited since 10,000BC. They can be reached by regular ferries from the Mull of Kintyre or by plane from Glasgow. (see getting here) They are steeped in history but offer the visitor every modern luxury and their people are famous for their friendliness and warm welcome.
Renowned for their whiskies, there are over 10 distilleries producing characteristic peaty single malts – and non-peated ones. There are also gin and rum distilleries, golf courses, museums and many sites of historical interest from 10,000BC.
These islands also boast breathtaking scenery and unspoiled beaches, turquoise seas, fantastic cycling, walking, swimming, kayaking, paddleboarding, sailing, golf, shooting, fishing and climbing opportunitiees. View our Directory for Things to Do.
There is a wealth of wonderful wildlife and rare birds – from the shy Corncrake to the mighty Golden Eagle- and two RSPB nature reserves. There are stunning inland lochs, ancient woodlands, meandering rivers for fly-fishing, the chance to see deer (also to stalk and shoot), and a host of places to stay, eat and drink to make the most of the abundance of fantastic local produce – including fresh seafood straight from the sea, Islay lamb and beef, and fresh oysters.
About the islands
Islay (pronounced eye-la) is 40 kilometres (25mi) long from North to South and 24 kilometres (15 mi) broad (240 square miles), but its rugged and ragged coastline is estimated to be 130 miles. Jura (deer island or udder island) is longer and narrower, covers 141 square miles and is renowned for both its thousands of red deer and its great peaks – the paps of Jura. These three steep-sided conical quartzite moutnains rise to 2,575 feet (785m and Beinn a’ Chaolais (mountain of the kyle) which reaches 2,408 feet (734m).
George Orwell lived on Jura from 1946-48 and it was here he wrote 1984.
Islay has about 3,500 permanent inhabitants (but numbers swell when tourists and second-home owners visit) and Jura has a couple of hundred permanent inhabitants.
The sea and climate
The islands are in the Atlantic, but their waters are warmed by the Gulf stream and largely sheltered from the fierce open waters of the Atlantic. This means snow and frost are rare and they have generally a much milder climate than the mainland. This far north you get lots of daylight (about 18 hours in June) and can have beautiful sunny days in summer with temperatures generally reaching about 16 or 17 deg C.
But the weather can be changeable and can also be very windy – here they say if you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes! Sea lochs like Lochindaal ensure plenty of sheltered beaches and often calm unnaturally turquoise waters – you would think you were in the Caribbean when you see some photos. The waters can be wonderful for swimming, kayaking, paddleboarding and pottering about in boats. Lots of people sail around these waters and can tie up on Islay (the marina is in Port Ellen) and on Jura.
The main towns and villages
On Islay people arrive by ferry into Port Ellen and Port Askaig, and a ferry at Port Askaig makes a regular journey over to Jura and back. Port Ellen and Bowmore are the two largest places on Islay – both have small supermarkets, shops, banks and garages. Port Ellen has the marina and facilities for motor homes. Bowmore has a leisure centre with swimming pool. Port Charlotte and Portnahaven are pretty seaside villages, with whitewashed houses and beaches. Port Charlotte has a shop, Post Office and petrol pumps, two hotels with bars, Museum of Islay Life, Natural History Museum and a campsite with full facilities and a café on site. Port Askaig has Islay’s oldest pub – the Port Askaig Hotel – and a shop an petrol pumps. Ballygrant and Keills are smaller villages but there is an hotel with rooms and a café. At Bridgend there is a shop with petrol pumps and an hotel with restaurant and in nearby Islay Square there are several artisan shops and a gallery and café. The airport is at Glenegedale between Port Ellen and Bowmore.
On Jura the main town is Craighouse which is where you will find an hotel, the distillery, Deer Island Rum, a gallery, main grocery shop and post office and places to eat. There is just one main road on the island which takes you up to Lussa, where you’ll find Lussa Gin.
Where to stay
Visitors are spoiled for choice when it comes to finding places to stay on the islands. There is an excellent selection of hotels and quality bed and breakfast accommodation as well as traditional and modern self-catering accommodation.
There are several campsites on Islay and places for motorhomes to hook up and park up.
Food and drink
With so many distilleries on the islands you will find no shortage of whiskies to try. They say there is a whisky to suit everyone, so if you’re not a fan, it’s just because you haven’t found yours yet! But you’ll also find locally produced gins as well as two rum distilleries – one on each island. There are also craft ales and wines produced here. The fertile agricultural land means Islay can boast succulent lamb and beef on its menus, as well as venison and of course seafood – which comes straight from the Atlantic seas to your plate. We have fresh oysters here on Islay and an abundance of fresh fish from close by on the mainland.
Things to do
Islay and Jura are fantastic places for those who love the outdoors and activities – but they are also surprisingly good places just to relax, unwind and watch the world go by. It’s a great place for families and dogs, for romantic breaks and just to get away from it all. There’s a wealth of history to uncover or just relax with a drink in hand and taking in the spectacular views.
From the hills, mountains and lochs, long unspoiled sandy beaches and secluded coves there are so many places to explore on the islands – you don’t have to go far to find a spot all to yourself. There are waterfalls, rivers and burns and many a delightful afternoon can be spent on simple pleasures like looking for creatures in the rocky pools of the shore, or building a beach barbecue and cooking as the sun sets over the sea.
For those who want to be doing something more active there is plenty to do to burn off some energy. Activities include cycling, kayaking, fatbiking, paddleboarding, swimming, e-biking, cycling, boat trips, birdwatching, shooting, fishing, golf, foraging, hiking – and of course whisky tasting and whisky tours.
To learn more about the island visit The Museum of Islay Live in Port Charlotte, where you can read (and see) more of the island’s history through some well-presented information boards and artefacts, and don’t miss the Natural History Museum to learn more about this area’s flora and fauna. There RSPB centre near Gruinart has lots of information on birds, wetlands and wildlife too. Most distilleries have visitor centres with more historical information, and opportunities for shopping, eating and whisky tours and tastings.
There are lots of sites of historical interest – such as Finlaggan, the seat of the Lords of the Isles, Dunnyvaig castle or Kildalton Cross on Islay or Barnhill George Orwell’s house on Jura. Throughout the islands you’ll find standing stones, burial grounds or places where our ancestors once lived.
A boat trip to see local wildlife in the sea, air and on land is a popular thing to do and a fantastic way to see more of the islands and the animals that live in and around them. Seals are usually guaranteed as there are several colonies here, dolphins often join the boats, you can spot otters on the shoreline and whales have even been known to put in an appearance. The islands are home to wild goats, and plenty of sheep and cattle which you’ll often find wandering free or grazing along the shore – sometimes even walking on the beach. Keep your eyes on the skies for buzzards, hen harriers, Golden Eagles and Sea Eagles as well as thousands of other birds – including in winter Islay’s famous barnacle geese. The RSPB site on the Oa and the one at Gruinart are good places to start for some birdwatching.
The Gulf of Corryvreckan spearates Jura from the smaller island of Scarba to the north. The Corryvreckan Whirlpool (the third largest in the world) as it is called, is caused by an underwater sea stack which reaches almost to the surface and causes the whirlpool when the tides change. You can get trips by boat to see this incredible natural phenomena in action or you can see it from Jura – but it’s a long walk from the nearest road to where you might view it.
There are also lots of beautiful inland lochs to walk around or to visit – they’re often overlooked with so many fantastic beaches to discover – but they are really worth visiting. There are some stunning lighthouses around the islands too and with white sand beaches and turquoise waters a holiday here can be the most Instagram-able experience!
Those that like to shop will find a number of small, independent shops dotted around the islands, with quality local artisan crafts and products for sale. There are photographic and art galleries, distillery shops with a range of gifts and goods, local woven wool items and places to buy books, jewellery, soaps and other gifts. Small craft shops alongside crofts are not uncommon and there are weekly craft fairs throughout the summer season, so whilst there are no shopping centres here there are plenty of opportunities for buying beautiful things.
Islay has a long – and bloody history. Evidence of humans here dates from around 8,000 – although some archeological finds could be as old as from 10,000 BC. Its first people were likely to be from the Mesolithic period but it is thought the first major settlers were Celts, who came from different parts of Europe. There is so much to learn and to see around the island about our ancestors – from graves and standing stones, to museum pieces and Celtic crosses – such as Kildalton Cross erected in 800AD. After Viking invasion it remained under Norse rule and was not part of the Scottish Kingdom – the Western Isles were independent from the mainland. By the mid-12th century islands were regained but a stretch of the western isles was ruled from Islay – seat of the Lords of the Isles. Finlaggan, near Port Askaig, on Islay was the main settlement, and you can learn more about it and see remains of the settlement there today. The Museum of Islay Life at Port Charlotte is a great place to learn more, and the American Monument on the Oa (the southern part of Islay) is testament to lives lost at sea during the first world war. Throughout the island are memorials and plaques to those who lost lives during the second world war too and plenty of places of historical interest such as burial sites or standing stones.
There is a wealth of wonderful wildlife and rare birds – from the shy Corncrake to the mighty Golden Eagle. Jura is famous for its deer and Islay for the barnacle geese who come here to over-winter. But there is so much to see on Islay in terms of flora and fauna – it’s no coincidence gins like The Botanist Gin on Island and Lussa on Jura can hand forage the botanicals for their spirit. Even the most amateur wildlife watcher will be able to spot seals, otters and dolphins here. Jura is famous for its thousands of red deer, but there are deer on islay too, as well as rare birds like the corncrake and the chough. Sea Eagles visit these islands and they are home to the mighty Golden Eagles. The shorelines play host to many wading and fishing birds such as oyster catchers and curlews, heron and cormorants and if the seas are rougher you’ll see huge gannets coming into the sea loch to fish. There are two RSPB nature reserves on Islay (the one at Gruinart has a visitor centre), so lots of opportunities for wildlife watching, but also for organized, guided experiences and walks. The Islay Natural History Trust visitor Centre at Port Charlotte is a great place to visit for children and adults and they offer lots of opportunities for the amateur and seasoned wildlife watcher to learn more. They also do organized events throughout the summer.
Do wave to people as you drive around – it’s called the Islay wave – everyone gives a greeting to friends and strangers so don’t be shy!
Do use the passing places. There are many single track roads so always keep your eyes peeled for what’s ahead. Those laybys and places to pull in are to let other cars go past where its narrow- they’re not for parking in or stopping to admire the view. Please be courteous to other drivers and cyclists.
Do shop locally. The islands rely on your custom. It is not a cheap place to live for those who choose to make it their home – as you can imagine everything has to be brought in by boat, so please spend locally wherever you can as you’re helping sustain and support the local economy and local jobs
Do pick up what is washed in by the tide. Most beaches have a wheelie bin nearby so please feel free to do a beach clean whilst you’re here – it’s amazing what gets washed up and often you’ll be saving some bird or other animal from being snagged in life’s flotsam.
Do keep an eye on the weather forecast. These are islands in the Atlantic – walkers, paddleboarders and kayakers alike can all be caught out by a sudden change in the weather and get into difficulties. Dress for the weather, take a phone with you and always let someone know where you’re going and how long you think you’ll be – better safe than sorry.
Do be a responsible visitor. Take your litter home or put it in the bin, don’t leave fires burning, pick up your dog’s mess and leave the car behind on those whisky tours or take a drivers’ dram home.