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Five ways to fall in love with the history of Islay

Five ways to fall in love with the history of Islay
Islay, know as the ‘Queen of the Hebrides’, is renowned for its natural beauty, bird watching opportunities and peaty malts. But this stunning Inner Hebridean island is one for history fans too. It’s rich in Highland heritage and packed with fascinating historic sites, from pre-historic structures to atmospheric ruins. Here are six ways to delve deeper and discover the historical highlights of Islay.

1. Grab a map and enjoy the journey as you locate Islay’s prehistoric sites, including forts, brochs, roundhouses, crannogs and standing stones. The most spectacular prehistoric structure on the island is Dun Nosebridge. This Iron Age fort sits on a prominent crag with commanding views of the surrounding landscape. Make sure you visit the ruins of a broch (drystone tower) at Dùn Bhoraraic near Ballygrant. Crannogs (artificial island residences) can be found at several sites on Islay including Loch Ardnave, Loch Ballygrant and Loch Allallaidh. There are a number of standing stones on Islay. Carragh Bhan Standing Stone is a cracker, offering fantastic views north to the Paps of Jura. Local legend has it that this stone marks the grave of Godred Crovan, one of the Norse-Gael rulers of the Hebridean sea kingdom. Lagavullin Stone Row is also worth checking out. This pair of standing stones is striking, with one stone standing 11 feet tall and the other, which has fallen, measuring 12 feet.

2. The Kildalton Cross is a magnificent 8th century high cross that stands outside the ruined church at Kildalton on the south coast of Islay. Perhaps the finest example of an early Christian cross in Scotland, it’s closely related to three major crosses in Iona – St John’s, St Martin’s and St Oran’s. The cross still stands over 8.5 feet high where it was erected over 1,200 years ago, the only early Christian cross still standing in its original position. It’s carved from a single block of epidiorite, a hard local stone that has preserved the wonderful images. On the east face of the shaft look out for what appear to be peacocks feasting on grapes, a detail paralleled in the Book of Kells. It’s worth taking a look around the Kildalton churchyard as well, which is home to some carved medieval grave slabs.

3. For a unique insight into the history of the Highlands & Islands of Scotland, a trip to Finlaggan in the north-east corner of Islay is a must. This island settlement in Loch Finlaggan played a hugely important role during the 14th and 15th centuries. It formed the administrative centre of the Lordship of the Isles, which ruled the islands and part of the west coast of Scotland, from Kintyre to Lewis, virtually independent of royal control. There are two islands, the larger, Eilean Mòr, is accessible by a walkway or boat. About 50 metres from the south tip of Eilean Mòr, is the smaller Eilean na Comhairle (Council Island). It was here that the Lords of the Isles built their council house. The site is well maintained by the Finlaggan Trust, with timber walkways and good information panels. There’s also an Information Centre.

4. Located on the south side of Islay on the shore of Lagavulin Bay, the ruined Dunyvaig Castle was once a naval fortress of the ‘Lords of the Isles,’ the chiefs of Clan MacDonald. It was built in the 12th century on top of a fort or dun. The vestiges of a 15th century keep and a 13th century tower survive, although much of what you see most likely dates from the 16th century. It’s a beautiful – and atmospheric – spot. As you look out to sea, imagine Somerled, King of the Isles, launching his galleys from here.

5. Kilarrow Church in Bowmore is better known as the ‘Round Church’, and when you visit you’ll see why! Built in 1767, it has a rare circular shape. Some say that the design was intended to ensure that there were no corners in which the devil could hide. The roof is supported by a single massive central pillar. The Round Church is still used for public worship and is open daily to visitors.

6. Once you’ve visited all of these historic sites it’s time to head to the Museum of Islay Life in Port Charlotte where you’ll find 10,000 years of Islay history on display. This cracking wee museum is housed in the former Free Church. The displays range from Mesolithic flint tools to illicit stills, Victorian toys to sporting trophies, old crofting tools to household objects, shipwrecks to dairy equipment. The library is available for research. The museum is open from March to October.

Don’t miss the chance to visit Islay’s historic distilleries while you’re on the island. Most offer guided tours ending with a large dram. It’s a great way to discover how the history, culture and landscape of the island has shaped Islay’s distinctive whiskies.

Find out more about things to see and do on Islay, Jura & Colonsay.

Header photo: Finlaggan by Mark Unsworth
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