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Islay  -  "An t-Eilean Uaine"  -  The Green Isle

It is from Kennacraig on the Mull of Kintyre that you begin the ferry journey to Islay. Although it is a long crossing in comparison to sailing to one of the other Inner Hebrides it is also one of the most interesting. From Kennacraig almost half of your travelling time is taken to sail down West Loch Tarbert otherwise known as the Loch of the Swans from the tale of The Fate of the Children of Lir. In the tale, the Children of Lir are changed into swans by their jealous stepmother and had to spend so many years swimming in the different seas surrounding Ireland and the west coast of Scotland.

As you come out of the mouth of the Loch, Gigha which means Isle of the Gods, comes into view lying a short distance from Tayinloan on the coast of Kintyre. Sailing past Gigha, Islay itself remains hidden from view for quite some time by the Paps of Jura which seem to dominate the Skyline. As you get closer however, the Queen of the Isles reveals herself and you are ready to begin discovering why the Island is so named. The ferry lands alternatively at either Port Ellen in the south of the Island or Port Askaig in the north east. Port Askaig is also where the small ferry crosses the treacherous Sound of Islay to neighbouring Jura.

Islay, around 25 miles in length and 20 miles across at its widest point, is one of the largest islands of the inner Hebrides. The island has also been called the Green Isle. With its rich fruitful land and relatively even climate (by Scottish standards), the crops have always ripened early in comparison to other isles and the farms are larger than those say on Mull or Skye. The scenery of the Island is certainly not boring, there is the varied coastland of the Island, particularly the Rhinns in the west, and the hilly south east is in marked contrast to the coarse and seemingly lifeless moorland of the Oa with its high cliffs rising out of the sea just a few miles away.

The old (and modern Gaelic) name of Islay is Ile, sometimes given as Eila. The tales say that it was so named after an ancient Goddess of that name. Other, later tales, relate that the name comes from Yula, a Danish princess who is said to be buried east of Port Ellen in the shadow of Cnoc Hill near Kildalton. Two upright stones which mark the spot can still be seen.

Islay's history is certainly long and is one of the best recorded. Emerging from the myths of time, some of the first historical references are to found in the Senchus Fer nAlban or History of the Men of Scotland. In this we are told that Islay was part of the ancient kingdom of Dal Riata belonging to the branch known as the Cenel nOengus. The Cenel nOengus is considered one of the older branches of Dal Riata and one of the first to come to Scotland, long before the arrival of Fergus MacErc with his kingship. The history of Dal Riata traces its lineage back to that of Conaire Mor and it is interesting to note that the Lords of the Isles, the MacDonalds, in later times trace their lineage to Conn of a 100 battles, the successor of Conaire Mor. It would seem that despite the Norse influence the spirit of the Gael remained true and proud of its heritage.

The Lordship of the Isles is an important part of Scottish history and one in which Islay played a major part. It was Somerled who first reclaimed the Isles for the Gaels. Despite his Norse sounding name which is Somhairle (pronounced Sorley) in Gaelic, he drove the Norse out of the Isles once and for all, including giving the Norse king of Man a decisive thrashing off Islay. He took the title of Lordship of the Isles, declaring independence separate from the rest of Scotland and at one time sacked Glasgow as a show of strength. He also married Ragnhild, daughter of the king of Norway, ensuring no further trouble from that quarter. Both the MacDonald and the MacDougalls are descended from Somerled. Dugald was his eldest son whose descendants became the Lord of Lorne and Donald was his grandson who inherited Islay and once again assumed the Lordship of the Isles.

It was Islay that was the centre for the Lordship of the Isles and from the information that we have it can be seen that the ideology behind it was in keeping with Gaelic tradition. There are two islands situated on Loch Finlaggan in the north east of the island, not far from Port Askaig. The larger of these two islands is an ancient burial ground where many carved stones still remain. It is said that this was the burial place of the queens and children of the Lords of the Isles although it seems that some of the Lords were also buried here instead of being taken to Iona. It is worth noting that it was on this island that the inauguration of the Lords of the Isles was carried out. This is similar to the tradition in Ireland where the burial area of great queens was also a ritual centre. It is also in keeping with Celtic tradition where the chiefs and kings ruled with the blessing of the Goddess of Sovereignty that is the land.

This ideology is further symbolised in the inauguration ceremony of the Lords of the Isles. As with the inauguration site for the kings of Dal Riata at Dun Add in Kintyre, there was a sacred stone situated on the island with the impression of a foot hollowed out of it. Here the genealogy of the new leader was given and with one foot placed in the hollow of the stone, a staff in one hand and a sword in the other, he gave his oath to the people and claimed the sovereignty of the land. This had to be carried out in the presence of the leaders of all the leading families and seven priests.

The smaller island in the loch is known as Eilean na Comhairle or the Island of Council and it was here that the council of the Lord of the Isles was held. The council consisted of 16 men, that is four from each class, for example, four lords, four sub-lords, four squires and four free holders. There was also a judge for each of the islands and areas of the mainland that the Lordship held lands on to ensure fair representation and appeals on any decision could always be made to the council on Loch Finlaggan. There are few remains left on this island but on a clear day the large stepping stones that once connected the two islands can still be seen below the surface of the water.

The road from Port Askaig leads across the eastern wing of the island to the head of Lochindaal. There is no access by road to much of the eastern side of the island or the northern point, to travel in these areas one must go on foot. The road ends north of Port Askaig at two of the island's seven distilleries, Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain. Islay is famous for its malt whisky, no other kind of whisky is produced on the island yet it seems that each of the seven distilleries produce their own distinctive flavours.

Continuing to the northen point of the island on foot, a day's walk from Caol Ila, there is Bhosla Cave. This is a large coastal cave which has not yet been fully explored. On either side of Rubh a'Mhail, the northern tip, there are fine examples of risen beaches to be seen. The land surrounding this area is open and wild, providing an excellent haunt for the deer of the island.

Heading south, following the shore along the eastern coast, a road is eventually reached at Ardtalla past the point of MacArthur's Head Lighthouse which marks the entrance to the sound of Islay. The coastline here is rough and rocky providing a haven for many varieties of sea birds. The road from Ardtalla continues to follow the coast around the south end of the western wing of the island. This is the most hilly area of Islay, the tallest hill being Beinn Bheigeir which rises over 1,600 ft from the shingle shore at Claggain Bay. Just beyond this is Trudernish Point where there are the remains of a vitrified fort or Dun. These amazing forts are the result of burning huge quantities of timber to produce enough heat to literally vitrify the stones, forming an almost solid glass like wall of defence.

Continuing south, rounding Aros Point, is Kildalton Cross, one of the many carved stones on Islay dating from around 800 AD. The stone from which the cross is carved is blue in colour and comes from the island although it is said that the sculptor came from Iona. Between Kildalton Cross and Kildalton Castle lie three islands not far from the shore. Their names prove interesting, Eilean Craobhach, Eilean A'Chuirn and Eilean Bhride, meaning Isle of Trees, Isle of Cairns and Isle of Bride. These islands and the positioning of a sanctuary on the nearby shore at Kildalton would suggest that this area had been held sacred long before the coming of Christianity.

Beyond Kildalton Castle we come to another three of the island's distilleries, Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig. Far more interesting however is the ruins of Dun Naomhaig castle now called Dunyveg. Naomhaig means sacred and this castle was once a stronghold for the Lords of the Isles. There is a tale concerning a piper with the castle. Apparently the chief at the time, Coll Ciotach, was away and the castle and his piper were taken over by the enemy. In order that the chief should avoid being captured upon his return the piper played a piobaireachd, 'Colla Mo Run' as a warning which the chief well understood and thus escaped. There is also another piobaireachd connected with the castle called 'Lament for the Castle of Dun Naomhaig'.

Opposite the Laphroaig distillery lies a small island with the unusual name of Texa. For all its size, the island boasts a ruined cottage and chapel and two wells. It is highly likely with the existence of the chapel not far from the wells that the island, once again, was of importance to the people from early times.

A few miles along the coast is Port Ellen, one of the biggest villages of the island although it is far from being one of the oldest. It is here that Godred Crovar, a famous Norse warrior, is buried at Carragh Ban. To the west of Port Ellen is the beautiful bay of Kilnaughton with its excellent beach. Kilnaughton almost marks the beginning of one of the most unusual places on the island, the Mull of Oa. Being the most southerly point of Islay, on a clear day, the Oa peninsula provides excellent views of the Antrim coast and Rathlin island in Northern Ireland. Yet the atmosphere of the Oa always seems to be somewhat eerie. The coastline in this part of the island is rocky with sheer cliffs, along which many caves are to be found. These caves however are only accessible by boat and care must be taken as the area is also the location of numerous shipwrecks. The Oa was a particularly favourite area for illicit stills and for smuggling as well as being a popular haunt of the seals. Tales of the Oa being populated by the sidhe still abound.

Not far from Kilnaughton Bay on the Oa stands Cragabus Cairn. Many of the stones from the cairn have been used in the building of the nearby crofts but the main chamber can still be seen. There is also one remaining single stone in the north east quarter standing 9ft high. About a mile and a half from the Point of the Mull of Oa can also be found the remains of an old entrenched camp known as Dun Aidh.

Heading up the west side of the eastern wing of the island we come, in contrast to the savagery of the Oa, to Laggan Bay, also known as the Big Strand, covering a six mile stretch of golden sand which gives way to dunes and machair. A small road leads from Port Ellen to Kintra on the shore of the south end of the strand. The only alternative access is at the other end of the strand six miles away at Laggan by way of a cart track.

Continuing north from Laggan we come to the other large village of the island, Bowmore, with its harbour opening into Lochindaal. The village is home to the island's famous round church which dominates the main street. A few miles along the road is Bridgend where the river runs into the head of Lochindaal surrounded by golden sands. Nearby is Islay House the birth place of the famous collector of folklore, J. F. Campbell who wrote the series 'Popular Tales of the West Highlands'. Close by on a hill there is a memorial to him. From Bridgend there is a small B road which leads into the interior of the eastern wing of the island before joining the main road again to Port Askaig. Following this road you come across an old turf fort at Nosebridge where the trenches and earthworks can still be seen. It is reckoned that the old fort once guarded the route into the heart of the island from the Sound.

From Bridgend we can also begin to travel down the east side of Lochindaal and into the western wing of the island known as the Rhinns. To me, the atmosphere of the Rhinns is more in keeping with traditional island life. The east side of Islay, particularly the two main villages, could really be anywhere in western Scotland. The Rhinns however have a magic of their own. It is also in the Rhinns that the Gaelic language has a reasonably high profile with street and village given in Gaelic. In fact in Port Charlotte I only ever saw the Gaelic names, no English equivalent was given. Here too, the warmth and friendliness of the people has remained with everyone greeted with a smile and a hello. It is a place that makes you feel welcomed.

The Museum of Islay Life is in Port Charlotte and well worth a visit. Unlike most museums you are able to physically touch most of the items on display which cover a wide variety of aspects of old island life. At the back of the museum there is also an extensive and very interesting library.

Portnahaven is a small fishing village at the very southern most tip of the western wing. Here the grey Atlantic booms its way onto the shore and even on a relatively calm day the great white coasters race up the cliff face. The small islands off Portnahaven are a favourite of the seals. On a misty day when there is little to be seen and all that can be heard is the song of the seals drifting over to you it does not take much to understand why the ancient tales convey the seals as shapeshifters. These seals can take human form and lure you away to the land under wave. The sound of their music is truly haunting.

Travelling up the west side of the Rhinns there is nothing between you and the views of Eire but miles of wild ocean. At one time this was a main thoroughfare for boats when the contact between Ireland and Scotland was strong, the isles are no longer such a centre now and the contact is with the Scottish mainland. Down in Kilchiaran Bay which is shaped like a huge horseshoe can be found numerous stones with the most amazing shapes and colour including large amounts of flint.

Up in the north west quarter is Loch Gorm, the largest freshwater loch on the island. There is the ruins of a small castle on an islet in the loch. This ruin was considered to be the home of the MacEacherns, hereditary swordmakers to the Lord of the Isles. The name remains on the island but are now said to be more renowned as pipers than as smiths. The root of their name, Each, means horse and Islay was once famous for its horses. There is an old saying that "an Islay man will walk a mile and a half with a saddle and bridle just to ride half a mile".

Not far from Loch Gorm is Kilchoman the site of another church and sanctuary. Here the mixing of old and new customs can still be seen in the Cross of Kilchoman which although obviously Christian contains in its pedestal a small round stone in a hollow. These stones were turned sunwise when asking for aid to be granted. It is good to see the stone remaining, in many places they have been removed by those who frown on such practises.

On the other side of Loch Gorm is a site known as Carnduncan or Duncan's Cairn. According to the tales it would seem that this is the site where a mother killed her own son for giving insult to a chief of the MacLeans. What is unusual in this is that the MacLeans were seen as the enemy by the folk on Islay but as they say the truth is usually stranger than fiction.

In the central area of the north of the island lies Loch Gruinart. This was the site of a huge battle between the MacDonalds and the same MacLeans I mentioned earlier. The MacLeans hoped to gain full possession of the island but instead ended up being soundly defeated and lost their chief in the process. A stone marks the place where the MacLean chief fell. It is said the MacDonalds got help in such things from a being known as Dubh Sith which translates as Black Elf or Black one of Peace. The tales also relate that Dubh Sith was the son of a fairy woman, strange and dark in appearance who preferred the haunts of rowan trees to anywhere else. The clan name MacDuffie or as they are now called MacPhee comes from the same source 'Mac Dubh Sithe'.

We finally find ourselves back in the area of Loch Finlaggan but I have only managed to give the briefest outline of the atmosphere and character of Islay. It is a wonderful place and admittedly, aside from Arran, it is my favourite of the inner Hebrides. Its qualities are hard to put into words but then these things should really be experienced by the individual, perhaps something will act as a trigger for you to discover more.

Copyright: 1993 H. McSkimming

[First published in Dalriada magazine]

Source - 8 July 2000:

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