The Hebridean islands of Islay and Jura sit very close together, and are most famous for their whiskies!
Jura (which we didn’t get across to) is largely uninhabited and mountainous, with a short road down one side leading to a few houses and, you’ve guessed, a distillery. Jura is a great malt whisky, which even gets a mention in my short story, Sprite Night, as Duncan the druid’s choice of drink – highly approved of by Cassie.
We arrived on Islay by ferry into Port Askaig, and drove the short distance (20 minutes) to Bowmore, where we stayed the night. With only one day on Islay, we set off in the morning to explore the top half of the island first, heading for Portnahavon.
Just after leaving Bridgend, driving along the coast, we saw a car parked at the side of the road with people standing beside it staring up through binoculars.
And, YES! Our first close sighting of a Golden Eagle! The poor bird was being mobbed by crows. Crows do this to all the big birds of prey, which are not very manoeuvrable at low altitude, and have to duck and dive and try to slide past the crows until they hit a good thermal and can get above them. This one was having a struggle, and so, was flying very low over the road – what a fantastic opportunity to see one so close!
We drove beneath this aerial battle a little way before stopping and breaking out the binoculars. Oh, such a wonderful experience!
Last year’s trip, to the Outer Hebrides, we walked miles to the Harris Eagle Hide, and after a long wait, saw two of these magnificent birds as tiny dots at great height, barely visible to the naked eye, though easily distinguishable by binocular.
This time, we were so close beneath the eagle, we could make out its feathers!
Not quite as close as this, but to give you an idea of the mighty bird with a wingspan of over 2m
After a little while, it managed to rise above the beastly crows, and was then joined by its mate – an absolutely glorious sight.
Eventually, they rose high enough to give us neck ache, staring up at them, so we drove on. And guess what? A little further along the road, we came across another pair, both being mobbed! We watched this pair, too, until they soared up and over the crest of the nearby hills.
Absolutely thrilled by starting the day this way, we continued along the road to Portnahavon, a beautiful little village arranged around a pretty little bay, looking out onto a smaller island with a lighthouse.
Right out on the headland at the end of the village, opposite the lighthouse, I took this video – if you take notice at the very beginning of a hazy piece of land in the distance, you might be as surprised as I was, to realise you are looking at Ireland! I had no idea we were so close.
Leaving Portnahavon behind, we headed off on one of the smaller roads – a picturesque drive along an awe-inspiring coastline.
This single loop led us back to the main road, to Port Charlotte, where we saw another pair of Golden Eagles!
This time I was quick enough (almost) to get a photo – one was perched on top of a telegraph pole. Of course, by the time I got my camera switched on and focussed, it took off – the resulting picture (I don’t have the greatest zoom on this camera) is a bit fuzzy, taken after just two big flaps of those huge wings, but at least this photo is all my own!
So we set off again down one of the small sideroads, leading to Machir Bay, and discovered our first distillery of the day.
Kilchoman distillery, is the only family owned distillery of the eight, soon to be nine, distilleries on this tiny island!
One of their whiskies is completely home produced, with their own home-grown barley (the distillery is in the middle of the family’s farm), and as a result is a unique product. All other whiskies produced on the island rely on at least some imported barley.
Of course, we had to partake of a tasting, in their lovely cozy café…
Unfortunately the amazing brown colour of the water (these were for cleansing the palate between sips of the real stuff) didn’t come out very clearly, but anyway, we brought a bottle home with us – yum!
Outside again, we looked across the fields and spotted another raptor, one I could identify this time, after my last research stint – this one was a male Hen Harrier
(Again, not my photograph)
As you can see, utterly different to the brown female bird of yesterday – quite spectacular, in fact.
And guess what – looking out over the barley fields, yes – another Golden Eagle (no. 7 so far today)
Continuing on from Kilchoman, we followed the loop of road around towards the RSPB (Royal Society for Protection of Birds) reserve at Loch Gruinart, where we found the recently arrived (and still arriving en mass) flocks of Barnacle Geese , ready to settle down for winter after a summer of breeding in the arctic.
They are a very chatty bunch of birds!
Leaving the rowdy geese behind, we carried on and, you’ve guessed it, spotted another Golden Eagle.
Returning to the main road, and back to Bridgend, we took the back road down to Port Ellen and saw eagle no. 9. flying over some forestry. I’m afraid by this time we’d reached the point of, “Oh look, another eagle. Okay, drive on.”
Also by this time, we were ready for a drink (not the alcoholic type this time), so we stopped in at the Laphroaig distillery (they also serve coffee) and stood for a while outside, soaking up the malty smell and this gorgeous scenery – who wouldn’t want to work in a place like this?
I already have a bottle of Laphroaig at home, so no need to top up, though tempting.
After all, it’s good enough for royalty…
And it is Cassie the Scottish water sprite’s favourite tipple.
This bottom tip of the island is well supplied with distilleries, the have even built a walkway between three of them, to keep visitors safe and out of their cars. We stopped again at the last of these three, Ardbeg, for tea and cake in their fabulous café.
If you’re wondering about the abundance of distilleries on a small island, here’s why:
“It is believed that the Irish monks first introduced the art of distillation to Islay, during the early fourteenth century. Due to the fact that Islay was a fertile island for growing barley, called bere in the old days, with excellent pure water sources and plenty of peat, the island had everything in favour to distill whisky. Some of the Islay Single Malt Whiskies are the strongest flavoured of all malt whiskies, a property which endears them to some and is less appreciated by others.” (https://islayinfo.com/islay_whisky_distilleries.html)
Personally, I adore the smoky, peaty flavour, and have been more than happy to relieve a couple of less-than-keen friends of bottles of Laphroaig they’ve received as presents.
A little way past Ardbeg, we ran out of road along this pretty shoreline, which had a family of lazy seals sunning themselves on the rocks (too far for my camera, alas).
Then it was on to our final destination of the day – RSPB Oa reserve – with just enough daylight left for the 3 mile circular walk, to include the American Monument:
“The American Monument is built on a 429 feet (131 metres) high cliff on the Oa Peninsula in 1920 by the American Red Cross, and is designed by architect Robert Walker. The monument commemorates the loss of two troop ships in 1918, the Tuscania and the Otranto and the location overlooks the very spot where the Tuscania sunk.” (islayinfo.com)
On the way up there, we walked through a field full of these gorgeous creatures
Highland cows are just adorable, aren’t they? And so friendly.
Walking up the track at the side of the field, we noticed two large birds sitting on the fence posts ahead of us. Assuming they were buzzards, we didn’t look too closely – until we got near enough to make them take off, and guess what? YES! They were a pair of Golden Eagles!!!
Not believing our luck, we proceeded up the track with these majestic birds playing fence hopping ahead of us until we reached the end of the fence line, at which point they left us and headed off towards the cliffs.
I just cannot believe our luck!
Calming down from all that excitement, we continued on over the marshy track (thankfully they’ve laid plastic walkways over the worst parts) to the monument.
This is the coastline beneath the monument, so you can see what sort of conditions any survivors faced (the Tuscania was torpedoed, the Otranto collided with another ship)
The monument is a peaceful place to stand and reflect, though definitely not a place to get too close to the edge beyond it
Further along on the walk, is a great view of the beach (on the left) where local men pulled survivors to safety, and gathered the bodies of the victims. It must have been so hard but locals plunged into the water to help – true heroes all.
Arriving back to the car at dusk, we then spent a lovely night at our B&B before driving back to Port Ellen the next morning to catch the ferry back to the mainland, and onward with the island odyssey!