10 April 2015
Islay and Jura, pearls of the Hebrides
One stretches across barely 620km2: the other, just 368km2. Here are two little islands in the Hebrides, situated midway between Scotland and Ireland.
A paradise for countryside fanatics but also lovers of peat whisky. Islay (pronounced “Eye-la”) and Jura represent the best of what Scotland has to offer.
Having barely landed or disembarked the ferry, you will be gripped by the beauty of the landscape. Whatever the season, its moors boast a multitude of colours. From the first days of spring, flowering gorse perfumes the air with sweet notes of coconut and honey. Skies dotted with heavy clouds nuance herbs and rocks in shades of ochre, purple or blue depending on the time of day. Here, pedestrians and cyclo-tourists are king, where little roads weave between dry stonewalls as far as one can see.
As on all the islands, the sea is everywhere and shows itself best from various hilltops. And these crystalline waters house a particularly rich wildlife, including sea otters, seals and cetaceans, which can be photographed as long as you are patient. Bird lovers will also be in paradise here: Islay is the winter resting place for numerous species of geese, from ducks to waders, little hopping birds that you can spot between the waves. For its part, Jura boasts an important stag population, of which there are twenty times more than people on the island, and are far from wild.
Peat is the black gold of these islands. This fossil fuel, which inhabitants still use to heat their homes, has made the reputation of the eight distilleries on Islay and the one on Jura. Softly burning away, this fuel emits very unusual notes, which in turn flavour the malted barley that is then distilled before finally making up several of the most famous whiskeys in the world. Christian monks brought over this ancestral knowledge from Ireland during the High Middle Ages, still continuing to endure today.
Besides its distilleries, there is very little shopping to be done on these two islands…fortunately, there is always Woollen Mill! In a pretty house perched above a small mountain stream, Gordon Covell perpetuates the tradition of handmade weavers have brought fame to Scotland. On a century-old machine, he weaves several of the most beautiful Scottish tartans and has dressed the stars of various blockbusters: Mel Gibson in Braveheart, Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump and even Lian Neeson in Rob Roy. As a genuine preserver of the history of tartan, The Woollen Mill is an un-missable spot on the island, if time permits, with its endless tartans and abundant history.
In the small market town of Craighouse, the “capital” of Jura (Diùra is Gaelic Scottish), everything revolves around its distillery, whose tall outline dominates the bay. At the heart of the distillery, guests can stay in a hidden lodge in total comfort. The décor, designed by Bambi Sloan, is a testament to the interior designer’s art of mixing. Hunting trophies adorn the walls, whilst flecked objects from around the United Kingdom bring a warm atmosphere that encourages idleness, gazing out over the forever changing landscape towards the sea through large bay window. An enviable cocoon for any Hebrides VIP.
Islay and Jura are the two most southern islands in the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. Scantily populated (some 3000 inhabitants on Islay and 200 on Jura), they are world-famous for their distilleries, boasting a total of nine today.
Getting there: there are two daily flights from Glasgow to the tiny Glenegedale Airport. There is also a ferry from Scallasaig on the mainland and Kennacraig on the Kintyre peninsula. Accessing Jura requires taking the ferry at Port Askaig.
Before travelling: www.islayinfo.com bursts with information and photographs of the islands in spring, summer, autumn and winter.