Islay

Thought to have been named after a Norse princess, the island of Islay (pronounced 'eye-lah') lies to the west of the Kintyre Peninsula and southwest of the island of Jura, from which it is separated by the Sound of Islay. Known as the Queen of the Hebrides, it is the third largest and southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides. Noted for its whisky distilleries that utilise the island's extensive areas of peat, Islay's chief settlements are Port Ellen, Port Askaig, Bowmore, Bridgend and Port Charlotte. Islay is a 'protected locality', so its name can only be used to describe whisky made on the island. Its nine distilleries produce around 22 million litres of spirit annually, worth at least £500 million, a considerable proportion of which is paid as tax.

Settled by the Irish in the 3rd century AD, Islay was part of the ancient kingdom of Dalriada before the Norse invasions of the 9th C. The Norse influence is reflected in distinctive placenames, such as Coillabus, Cornabus, Grobolls, Lyrabus and Scarrabus. For nearly four centuries, from the 12th C., Islay was the headquarters of the powerful Lords of the Isles whose seat was at Loch Finlaggan near Port Askaig. The island was subsequently granted to the Campbells, one of whom, John Francis Campbell (1822-85), spent his life recording the legends and traditions of the island. Monuments of historical interest on the island include the 9th-C. high Celtic Cross at Kildalton, the 14th-C. cross at Kilchoman, Dunyvaig Castle and the chapel at Kilchiaran founded by St. Columba. Other notable Ileachs (natives of Islay) include General Alexander McDougall (1731-86), orientalist Dr. John Crawfurd (1783 - 1868), 'Tartan Pimpernel' Donald Caskie (1902-83), whisky distiller Jim McEwan (b.1948), politicians George Robertson (Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, b.1946) and Alistair Carmichael (b.1965), and broadcaster Glenn Campbell (b.1976). The island has lost most of its population from its peak of 14,992 in 1831, and continues to decline from 3860 (1961), 3816 (1971), 3792 (1981), 3538 (1991), 3457 (2001) to 3228 (2011).

Despite its modest area of 61,956 ha (153,093 acres), the landscape of the island is diverse, extending from coastal plains, to the rolling hills of the Rhinns of Islay, a hammerhead-shaped peninsula which forms the west of the island, and the desolate peat moorlands and quartzite peaks of the southeast. Here the island rises to a height of 491m (1610 feet) at Beinn Bheigeir. To the west of Port Ellen, the granite cliffs of another peninsula, The Oa, are popular with climbers and feral goats.

Islay's complex geology comprises metamorphic rocks formed from both sedimentary and igneous precursors, some of which are unusual in Scotland. Veins of lead, copper and silver ore were exploited as late as the 19th C. and evidence of their mining remains. Meta-limestones cutting across the centre of the island give rise to unusually fertile soils for the Hebrides and rich pastures, where barley is grown for the distilleries, and milk and beef cattle are grazed. There are sand dunes and extensive areas of ecologically-important machair lying behind several of the island's fine beaches. A boulder bed near Port Askaig provides rare evidence of a Pre-Cambrian ice age, while fine raised beaches around the coast are evidence of uplift after the melting of more recent ice sheets which covered the island in the Pleistocene. Tourism, sheep farming, crofting, crab, lobster and scallop fishing are also important industries.

Much of the Rhinns of Islay has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, owing to its geological and biological importance. Islay is noted for its birdlife, in particular large numbers of overwintering geese. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds runs the Loch Gruinart Nature Reserve and a National Nature Reserve was created at Duich Moss. Both became landscapes contested between conservationists and local interests in the 1980s and 90s.

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