Whisky, cycling and birds in Islay

This is a post of a holiday trip I did with my husband Toni to the island of Islay in Scotland  on 19th-28th July 2016. The location was Toni’s choice because it was his 40th birthday. Of course we wanted to visit the whisky distilleries but we wanted also to see the beautiful nature (thanks for the tips to Nina O’Hanlon) and cycle at least to the nearest locations. I learned already before getting there that the name of the island is pronounced ’eye-la’. 😉

I think this post fits under the title of my blog since whisky is made of plants (barley) and we saw lots of local plants, insects, mammals and birds (even inside whisky distilleries). 😉

We had a goal to visit all eight whisky distilleries in Islay (Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin and Laphroaig) and the one in the neighbouring island Jura. And we made it and tasted the excellent products at each distillery. In almost all distilleries you could for free taste 1-2 cl of one or two of their products. We also cycled in total 160 km up and down the hills. I observed and identified 51 bird species (+ lots of unidentified small bird sounds from the forests, some Calidris waders and ducks too far from the coast etc) and six mammal species (lists of these at the end of the post).


19th July 2016

We flew Berlin – Heathrow – Glasgow – Islay and in the end we arrived to Islay in the evening two hours late. But we still managed to get a taxi from the airport to take us to the place we stayed. What a beautiful location 13 Distillery Houses is! It’s right next to the Caol Ila distillery and has a fantastic view to Jura. And also the apartment was excellent with everything you could need.


20th July 2016

We travelled by local bus first to Bowmore and there changed to another bus to Port Charlotte. There we had booked bikes to use during the holiday. The rental place is opposite to the Port Charlotte Hotel and I can recommend that. The bikes were in good condition and the owner very helpful. So, now we had to cycle 25 km back to Caol Ila. On the way we stopped at the Bruichladdich distillery for some whisky tasting and shopping. They also make delicious gin, The Botanist Gin.


21st July 2016

This morning we took again the local bus to Bowmore. But this time we visited the distillery there. We went on a guided tour to see all the different places inside the distillery. They had a silent season so no production at that moment. That was good since there was a pied wagtail indoors (photo below). We had also a very nice tasting after the tour.


22nd July 2016

Plenty of cycling today, in total 45 km to Loch Gruinart and back + 5 km walking there. The RSPB nature protection area was very pretty and you could see the birds surprisingly well  from the two hides. One sedge warbler even came to chirp right behind the window. And walk on the moor path was very nice. We saw there mallards, greylag geese, raven, redshanks etc.


23rd July 2016

Today we travelled with the local bus to Port Ellen at the other end of the island. We had to catch the first bus of the day, so at Port Ellen we first had a delicious second breakfast at a local hotel. After that it was time to visit the three whisky distilleries there. At Laphroaig we had again a guided tour and it was very good. Of course, we had some whisky tasting at the end of the tour. They also had a silent season, and therefore it didn’t matter that there was a barn swallow breeding indoors (see photo below). After Laphroaig we walked to Lagavulin and Ardbeg. We didn’t have any tours in those but got to taste some of their products. The day got a perfect end when from the bus on the way back I saw a red grouse right next to the road. New bird species for me.


24th July 2016

The day started with an easy 5-minute walk down to the Caol Ila distillery. We had there a guided tour with a tasting in the end. Also that distillery had a bird in the premises, this time black guillemots that were breeding under the pier in front of the distillery (see photo below). Then it was time to visit the Bunnahabhain distillery. It was not far and we cycled there. The road had the steepest hills. In total only 13 km, but it felt a lot harder. Fortunately the staff at the distillery was very nice. We had just missed a tour but they showed us anyway the Still room. That distillery has the best view of all the Islay distilleries (see photo on top of this post and below).


25th July 2016

Now it was time to take the 5-minute ferry from Port Askaig to visit Jura. We had our bikes with us and we cycled to Craigshouse and back (in total 30 km). The weather was rain showers and especially on the way back we got quite wet despite rain coats and water-proof hiking shoes. At Craigshouse we had a lunch at the local hotel and visited the Jura distillery for some whisky tasting. In the evening when walking from Port Askaig to Caol Ila we saw first some small bats (I later read that the only small bat species there is pipistrelle, so I guess it was that) and then a hedgehog. I couldn’t believe my eyes but then googled that hedgehogs had been introduced there in the 70s. The biggest surprise of the whole trip for me.


26th July 2016

We had originally planned to visit the Oa but the weather forecast was as rainy as the previous day. I didn’t want to get wet two days in a row. So instead, we took a local bus to Portnahaven. The village was quieter than I had thought but fortunately there was still the nature. We saw roe deer and of course the very noisy grey seals (photo below). And finally I saw from close enough a shag. I had seen those earlier but from too far. But now it was clear, another new bird species for me. We also saw sand martin + their nests, stonechat (the second time ever for me to see this species), eiders, song thrush breaking a snail shell etc.


27th July 2016

The last full day in Islay. We had to return our bikes to Port Charlotte. Luckily, the weather was better today, except for the rather strong head-wind most of the way. We cycled first to Bridgend and had cappuccinos there. Then we continued to the only remaining distillery, Kilchoman. That was a bit different one, because it’s rather small and they make everything in the whisky production themselves. After whisky tasting we continued to Port Charlotte. We cycled in total 46 km today. We had time to visit the local pub for one drink before catching the last bus back.


28th July 2016

The same taxi that brought as here, drove us also back to the airport in the morning. No more new bird species on this day, but one new mammal species, wood mouse that was feeding under the bird feeder in front of the bedroom window. It felt sad to leave Islay. This had been one of the best holidays ever. We decided that we will come here again. And then visit the Oa and see the choughs and golden eagles there.


Quick summary of Islay:

  1. The air is fresh and clean. I could feel my nose and lungs cleaning the moment we stepped out of the plane.
  2. Tap water is good. Most of the distilleries use it, too. If the water is not good for drinking, there is a clear note about that.
  3. There are lots of sheep and cows, and they are not always behind fences.
  4. When walking or cycling, most of the passing car drivers greet you. And other walkers and cyclists say hello.
  5. Most of the roads are narrow but everyone is very polite and gives space so that cars, bikes etc can pass each other.
  6. Islay is a very small place. You see the same people (both locals and tourists) around the island.
  7. In addition to the whisky distilleries, there are also some breweries. And Bruichladdich makes excellent gin (The Botanist Gin).
  8. At times it felt almost like being home in Finland, either in Lapland (because of the hills and moors) or in the archipelago (when close to the sea).


Birds species I observed and identified

gannet (Morus bassanus), shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis), grey heron (Ardea cinerea), mute swan (Cygnus olor), greylag goose (Anser anser), mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), eider (Somateria mollissima), hen harrier (Circus cyaneus), buzzard (Buteo buteo), red grouse (Lagopus lagopus scotica), pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus), oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus), ringed plover (Charadrius hiaticula), lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), redshank (Tringa totanus), herring gull (Larus argentatus), common gull (Larus canus), great black-backed gull (Larus marinus), black-headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus), common tern (Sterna hirundo), black guillemot (Cepphus grylle), rock dove (Columba livia), wood pigeon (Columba palumbus), collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto), Eurasian skylark (Alauda arvensis), barn swallow (Hirundo rustica), house martin (Delichon urbicum), sand martin (Riparia riparia), rock pipit (Anthus petrosus), meadow pipit (Anthus pratensis), pied wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrellii), wren (Troglodytes troglodytes), European robin (Erithacus rubecula), wheather (Oenanthe oenanthe), stonechat (Saxicola rubicola), blackbird (Turdus merula), song thrush (Turdus philomelos), sedge warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus), willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus), goldcrest (Regulus regulus), raven (Corvus corax), hooded crow (Corvus cornix), jackdaw (Corvus monedula), rook (Corvus frugilegus), starling (Sturnus vulgaris), house sparrow (Passer domesticus),  chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs), greenfinch (Chloris chloris), goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella)


Mammal species I observed and identified

hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus), grey seal (Halichoerus grypus), roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus), rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus)


© Elina Mäntylä (elkuma@utu.fi), 5 August 2016


2 thoughts on “Whisky, cycling and birds in Islay

  1. Pingback: Whisky, cycling and birds in Scotland: Part II Glasgow and Orkney | From Plants to Birds

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