Islay is 40 kilometres (25 miles) long from north to south and 24 kilometres (15 miles) wide. The east coast is rugged rising steeply from the Sound of Islay, to the highest peak Beinn Bheigier 1,612 feet (491 m). The western Rhinns peninsula is separated by Loch Indaal to the south and Loch Gruinart to the north. Ardnave Point and loch is a conspicuous promontory on the northwest coast.
The south coast is relatively sheltered from the prevailing winds and is wooded with numerous bays and sea lochs, including Loch an t-Sailein, Aros Bay and Claggain Bay. In the far south-west is a rocky peninsula called The Oa, the closest point in the Hebrides to Ireland.
The island’s population is located in the communities of Bowmore and Port Ellen. Smaller communities include Bridgend, Ballygrant, Port Charlotte, Portnahaven and Port Askaig.
The remainder of the island is sparsely populated and mainly agricultural. There are several small freshwater lochs including Loch Finlaggan, Loch Ballygrant, Loch Lossit and Loch Gorm and numerous burns on the island.
The River Laggan enters the Atlantic at the north end of Laggan Bay and the River Sorn which flows from Loch Finlaggan, enters the head of Loch Indaal at Bridgend.
These support wild brown trout and salmon fishing. There are many small uninhabited islands around the coasts, including Eilean Mhic Coinnich and Orsay off the Rhinns, Nave Island on the north west coast, Am Fraoch Eilean in the Sound of Islay and Texa off the south coast.
Islay’s climate is mild compared to mainland Scotland due to the influence of the Gulf Stream. Snow is rarely seen at sea level and frosts are rare. However, winter gales sweep in off the Atlantic, gusting up to 185 kilometres per hour (115 mph).
Caledonian MacBrayne operate ferry services on MV Finlaggan and MV Hebridean Isles to Port Ellen and Port Askaig from Kennacraig. The crossing takes about two hours. A small car ferry connects Port Askaig to Feolin on Jura. There are various lighthouses on and around Islay aiding navigation. These include the Rhinns of Islay light built on Orsay in 1825 by Robert Stevenson, Ruvaal at the north western tip of Islay constructed in 1859, Carraig Fhada at Port Ellen and MacArthurs Head.
Agriculture on Islay is primarily beef and sheep. Crab, lobster and scallop fishing is undertaken from Port Askaig, Port Ellen and Portnahaven. Oysters are farmed at Loch Gruinart.
Islay is one of five whisky distilling areas in Scotland. The industry is the island’s second largest employer after agriculture. Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig. on the south of the island produce malts with a very strong peaty flavour. On the north of the island Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain are produced, which are substantially lighter in taste. Kilchoman is a microdistillery located on the Rhinns.
Islay’s landscape has evolved from centuries of management by man resulting in an evolving seasonally changing mosaic of: arable and pasture farmland, moorland, rocky hilltops, blanket bogs, lochans, ancient woodlands, sand dunes, saltmarsh, sandy beaches, sea cliffs and sealochs. Exceptional wildlife encounters are possible at any time of the year.
Islay supports many species of wildlife especially birds. The island is home to winter visiting barnacle geese, greenland white-fronted geese with smaller numbers of brent and pinkfooted geese. Other water-fowl include whooper and mute swans, eider duck, goldeneye, long-tailed duck and wigeon.
Summer visitors include the elusive corncrake, sanderling, and ringed plover. Resident birds include chough, hen harrier, golden eagle, peregrine falcon, barn owl, raven, oystercatcher and guillemot. Frequent sightings of the introduced white-tailed sea eagle are now seen regularly around the coastline.
Red deer inhabit the hills, fallow deer can be found in the south east and roe deer are common on low-lying ground.
Otters are common around the coasts together with common and grey seals which breed on Nave Island. Offshore are minke whale, pilot whale, killer whale and bottle-nosed dolphin.
Adders and the common lizard are widespread. The island supports a significant population of the marsh fritillary along with numerous other moths and butterflies.
The mild climate supports a diversity of flora, typical of the Inner Hebrides.