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In the movies, Scotland is usually portrayed in one of three fashions: the destitute dreariness of Trainspotting; the historic valour of Rob Roy and Braveheart, or the quaint, rural folkiness of the 1983 Peter Riegert vehicle Local Hero.

For visitors, the truth, as it so often does, lies somewhere in the middle.

With the recent primping and preening of its major cities, the urban decrepitude of Scotland is as much anout-of-date caricature as is the seediness of New York City's Times Square, and as much as the country still boasts hectare after hectare of rolling verdure, its towns and villages are neither backward burgs 50 years out of time nor strongholds of kilt-clad revolutionaries. Let it be recorded: This Scotland is modern.

But still, there do remain places where the poignant romanticism of Scottish legend meets the stress-defying languorousness of the Celtic countryside, and where the whirling, music-filled parties called ceilidhs are fuelled by equal parts wild enthusiasm, an honest love of dance and single-malt whisky. One such place is the southwestern island of Islay.

The gradual deceleration of life begins aboard the ferry from Kennacraig, at the top of the Kintyre Peninsula, to Port Ellen at the south of Islay. It's a two-hour ride, more or less, but island locals will tell you that the journey could be made in half the time - the ferry moves slowly to conserve fuel, they say. Not that anyone making the rather pricey crossing seems to care, content as they are to lounge in the bar, sightsee from the deck or nap in the comfortable lounge.

Reaching Islay (pronounced eye-la), cars disembark one by one, virtually all headed north, but none too terribly concerned with overtaking the vehicle in front. As the southern anchor of the island, Port Ellen is one of the three main towns on Islay, the others being Bowmore and Port Charlotte, located in order on a horseshoe of a road surrounding Loch Indaal. Just to the east is the tightest concentration of distilleries on the island, but most visitors head first to their lodgings, the majority of which are situated somewhere on or just off the loch.

Oh yes, about those distilleries. Islay is justly famed for its whiskies, which are renowned, and sometimes reviled, for their intensely peaty and iodine-laden characters. (In fact, this is a misrepresentation of many of Islay's single malts, but more about that later.) Even with its eight working distilleries, though, there is more than malt to this modest Scottish island paradise. As small as it is, at a mere 600 square kilometres with a population of about 3,500, Islay offers a surprising number of diversions.

For golfers, there is the 116-year-old Machrie Golf Links, which has remained virtually unchanged since its original development, while bird watchers, or "twitchers," as they are known throughout Britain, will discover a bounty of birding on the Oa peninsula. Walkers and cyclists will find that the island's 210 kilometres of coastline offer not only spectacular views, but also a superb range of geography, from sandy beaches to craggy cliffs, secluded woodlands and rolling fields. And Islay delights amateur historians with its centuries of relics and lore, from Neolithic standing stones to tragically sunken ocean liners and troop carriers.

For the rest of us, though, there is the simple joy of unencumbered relaxation, whether at the beach, in the pub or communing in the countryside with the sheep and cattle that outnumber the island's human population many times over. Stress loses its meaning here, as it will in any place where time is more or less irrelevant beyond the rising and setting of the sun.

(The abundance of livestock on Islay, incidentally, is the first indication of your best choices for dining when visiting. Although it is surrounded by water, fishing is tightly controlled on Islay, and beyond the local oysters, scallops and some shellfish, much of the seafood available is actually imported. The local beef and lamb, on the other hand, is excellent.)

After a hectic day spent rambling in the countryside, seal spotting on the Rhinns Peninsula or distillery hopping, there's nothing quite like ambling down to the local pub - or taking one of the three island taxi services, if you're staying in a guest house outside the town - and discovering that all the Scottish pub hospitality you've read about truly does exist. At the Port Charlotte Hotel in Port Charlotte or the Harbour Inn at Bowmore, combining a gourmet meal of local products with a post-prandial dram or two of Islay whisky can easily lead to lively conversation with the locals and the discovery of a host of new "best friends."

Of course, no discussion of Islay is complete without mention of the island's famous whiskies and their distillers, at least three of which - Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Bowmore - will be of more than passing familiarity to even the casual consumer of single malt whisky. They and the rest - Bruichladdich, Caol Ila, Ardbeg, Bunnahabhain and the new, not yet commercially available Kilchoman - all offer tours throughout the summer months, although some require advance booking.

While famous for their aggressive characters, not all Islay whiskies are the smoky, peaty monsters they are reputed to be. Bunnahabhain, in particular, offers a quite mild malt, billing itself as "the gentle taste of Islay," while Bowmore and Bruichladdich each produce whiskies of varying intensity. The three southernmost distilleries, Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Ardbeg, all conveniently lined up beside Port Ellen, are the proud champions of some of the most strongly flavoured spirits the world has to offer.

Anyone visiting Islay is bound to want to take in at least one or two distillery tours, and quite rightly so. For even if single malt is not your passion, each of the island's distilleries is so positioned that it affords breathtaking scenery before you even set foot inside. Once on tour, the whisky-making process reveals itself in all its wondrous, alchemic glory, with your tour guide alternately assuming the roles of educator, fellow aficionado and, of course, new best friend.

Ultimately, however, it is not the whisky wandering that makes Islay such a desirable destination, but the people, the setting and the sense of timelessness that swathes the island like a thick wool blanket on a frosty January eve. Of course, when the temperature does dip to single digits, as it can even in the late spring or early autumn, a drop or two of Islay's signature golden elixir is an additional benefit most warmly received.

Pack your bags


British Airways: ( flies in and out of Islay from Glasgow three times a day during the summer, less frequently in fall and winter.

Caledonia MacBrayne Hebridean & Clyde Ferries: ( The ferry leaves Kennacraig for Port Ellen and Port Askaig (farther up the island) three times a day in summer, twice a day during the winter months. Advance booking is essential.

The author travelled with the assistance of VisitScotland.


Port Charlotte Hotel: 44 14 96 850 360; Doubles, including full Scottish breakfast, start at $256 a night, with a three-nights-for-the-price-of-two special available from Oct. 1 to March 31.


Visit the distilleries, of course.

Ardbeg Distillery:

Bowmore Distillery:

Bruichladdich Distillery:

Bunnahabhain Distillery:

Caol Ila Distillery:

Kilchoman Distillery:

Lagavulin Distillery:

Laphroaig Distillery:


The MacBrayne ferry schedule is nothing if not convoluted and unless you make good study of the schedules, including noting when they change for the season, you may wind up as I did spending a little more time waiting for the next ferry than you had anticipated.


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