The Fèis Ìle started in 1985 as a celebration of Islay & Gaelic culture and was not really conceived as a whisky festival. But whisky is a big part of Islay culture so it was inevitable that it would become an important element of Feis Ile.
The festival in its current format, whereby each distillery hosts an open day, started in earnest in 2000. Since then the festival has become firmly established as one of the highlight events in the whisky calendar and this popularity means you need to be well prepared.
So here are some top tips that will help you make the most of a visit to Fèis Ìle.
Book Your Accommodation Early –
I really can’t emphasise this enough.
Islay is an island with a population of approximately 3,300 but that number increases 3 fold during the festival.
Consequently, accommodation books up fast so you really need to get your accommodation booked a year in advance if attending during the week of the festival.
Ideally, to make the most of your pilgrimage to Islay, you want to stay for the whole week of the festival. And if you are staying for a week your best option is to get a self catering cottage.
There are several good websites where you can find self catering options listed. The Islay Info website is the one we use most. The self catering market ranges from well equipped glamping pods sleeping 2 up to some very luxurious houses with accommodation for 8.
Of course, there are B&B’s & hotels on the island. The newest of the hotels is The Machrie Hotel which is located conveniently close to the island’s airport and has an excellent golf course. The Machrie Hotel has been here for a long time ( I recall staying here on my first visit in 1983), but the modern Machrie Hotel bears little resemblance to its former self.
The new hotel takes full advantage of its wonderful location with a restaurant located on the first floor so that you can dine overlooking the golf course and enjoy the magnificent sunsets that light up the waters of Laggan Bay. If you have the budget this is the place to stay.
Getting to Islay by the Ferry –
One of the things that makes Islay special and keeps it that way, is the fact that it isn’t the easiest of islands to get to.
For a start, if travelling from Glasgow Airport, you have a drive of ~2.5 hours to get to the CalMac ferry terminal at Kennacraig.
And then you need to check-in your vehicle for the ferry 30 mins before it sails. So that means you need to allow 3 hours of travelling time before you even board the ferry.
If you don’t wish to drive, there is the Citylink bus service (number 926) that runs from Glasgow to Campbeltown via the Kennacraig ferry terminal. By bus, the journey takes 3 hrs 15 mins, but foot passengers only need to be at the ferry 10 mins before sailing.
The ferry crossing takes 2 hours so the day you travel to Islay is a day that will be spent primarily in transit. Unless you decide to schedule a stopover at the village of Tarbert which is just a 10 minute drive from Kennacraig ferry terminal.
There are several ferry crossings each day and it is a reasonably large vessel with a bar (in case you want to get started early with the whisky tasting), a quieter passenger lounge area and a cafe where you can sample in the infamous CalMac Cuisine.
Sea sickness isn’t likely to be a problem unless you are very susceptible.
As with accommodation, you don’t want to delay booking your ferry tickets too long. This is especially true if you are taking a car across to Islay as car spaces on the ferries are more limited than passenger spaces.
Getting to Islay by Plane –
If you’re in a rush to get to Islay, you can just jump on a Loganair plane at Glasgow Airport and then be sucking in the bracing sea air of Laggan Bay just 45 minutes later. It’s not as expensive as you might think so it is worth a visit to the Loganair website to price up this option.
In 2019, a service also started to operate from Edinburgh airport, but current indications are that this service will not be resumed. However, it would be worth checking the Loganair website just in case they change their minds. https://www.loganair.co.uk/
Getting Around Islay –
You really don’t need to worry about getting lost on Islay. It would take a considerable amount of whisky to cause that level of confusion to happen.
The main road network on Islay can be thought of as a roughly scrawled letter “T” with Portnahaven on the left tip, Port Askaig on the right and Port Ellen at the bottom. Near the intersection of the “t” you have Bowmore / Bridgend. There are, of course, smaller roads that depart from these main roads, but wherever you end up you’ll be able to find your way back to Bowmore, the capital of Islay.
There are 2 car hire companies on Islay, but they don’t have enough cars to cope with the demand during the Whisky Festival so, once again, you need to book early. They will be happy to arrange delivery to where you are arriving or staying.
Navigating the island by public transport is not easy and we’d suggest you forget this idea and instead use a taxi. Islay has a lot of taxi companies, which is a good thing for a small island with a tourist trade built on whisky tasting.
BUT, If you do want to try using the bus, you need to know that there are just 3 bus routes on the island that link Bowmore with Port Askaig, Portnahaven, Port Ellen / Ardbeg. See website for details.
The bus times coincide with ferry sailings, school opening/closing times and a few other apparently random factors that we have yet to figure out. If you use the buses, you really need to study the timetables carefully or you may find that you have long waits before a return journey.
Do take note that the bus service after 6pm is virtually non-existent, and don’t even think of bothering with a bus on a Sunday.
Tips to get the most out of the Festival –
There are two little bits of advice I would give about visiting the distilleries during the festival;
- If you are going for the full week of the festival allow yourself a few days off in between distillery visits.
Cherry-pick the malts you enjoy most and schedule to attend those distillery open days. But also set some time aside for seeing the other attractions that Islay has to offer (more on this subject later).
- If you attend a distillery late on in the day, and by that I mean aiming towards 5pm, you will find that there are often several partially drunk bottles of malt lying around the complimentary bar.
If you hang around until closing time, and make friends with the bar staff, you can gently ask what happens with all the half empty bottles. At this point, you might be offered the remainder of the bottle to take home. This is something that my friends and I were exceptionally good at doing and we left Islay with an indecent amount of free whisky.
Now I can’t promise you the same, but it’s worth a try.
In the Evening –
As mentioned earlier, Feis Ile is, at its heart, a celebration of Islay culture and the whisky is complementary to that. So a big part of the week long celebrations are events of a musical nature. These events might take the form of pipe bands, fiddle music and the singing of traditional Gaelic songs. You may also find a few Ceilidhs have been organised where the locals will try to educate you in the dangerous contact sport known as “Highland country dancing”.
If you prefer your evening entertainment to be a bit less formal and too involve the comfort of some whiskies in a pub, you will be pleased to know that Islay has some welcoming bars where live music and good craic is likely to be found.
Our favourites are;
An Tigh Seinnse, Portnahaven – The name is Gaelic for “The Public House” and this is a no frills pub in the best of Hebridean traditions. It’s a small place so you can’t be guaranteed a seat. Music nights are most often on weekends, but they also have quiz nights so check their facebook page to see what’s on.
Port Charlotte Hotel, Port Charlotte – located by the sea in the pretty village of Port Charlotte which is arguably the most attractive village on the Island. You can’t miss the hotel when you drive through the village.A bit posher than An Tigh Seinnse and a good place for dinner. They have a regular live music session in the bar on Wednesday and Sunday nights during the summer.
Lochside Hotel, Bowmore – Located on the street that heads north from the village Square towards Bridgend. Where the Lochside Hotel excels is its excellent range of malts in Duffies’ Bar. All the Islay distilleries are represented with a good choice of different “expressions” from each of the distilleries. Check their website for details of live music nights. These are usually on a Saturday in the bar.
Islay Hotel, Port Ellen – Easy to find as this is the large hotel close to the Ferry terminal in Port Ellen.. They have live music in the Whisky bar on Thursday and Saturday nights throughout the summer season..
Taking a break from the whisky –
There’s no doubt that Islay is a great destination for the whisky lover, but there are other attractions to this island that are worth staying sober for.
I won’t go into the details of all the things you could do with a week on Islay, but here are a few highlights just to give you a taste:
Kildalton Cross – Continue north on the single track road from Ardbeg distillery and you will follow an attractive route along the coast and through scattered woodlands to the chapel at Kildalton. The Kildalton Cross is noteworthy because it is the only complete Celtic High Cross in Scotland and dates from around 800 A.D. It is a beautiful and tranquil location today, but an archaeological dig at the base of the cross found the remains of a skeleton that bore the marks of death by the gory Viking ritual of being spread-eagled. If you don’t know what that involves you should Google it.
Kilnave Chapel – On the west shore of Loch Gruinart there is a small ruined chapel at Kilnave. In the graveyard you can see a heavily weathered Celtic cross and the chapel ruins which were the site of a gruesome event. Legend records that a group of escaping men from Clan MacLean took refuge in the church, but the pursuing MacDonalds ignored the sanctuary of holy ground and set fire to the church with the MacLeans inside. If ever a place should be haunted this is it!
American Cemetery – Islay has witnessed its fair share of human tragedy and one of the most tragic events happened in 1918 when the troopship HMS Otranto collided with another vessel and sank with the loss of more than 400 lives. The bodies washed ashore for several weeks and, by all accounts, the islanders grieved for the dead as if they were their own.
The bodies were all laid to rest in a cemetery near Kilchoman church in the Rhinns of Islay. It is a very moving place but there are now only around 70 gravestones as the bodies of the American servicemen were exhumed and repatriated in 1920.
There is also a war memorial on the Oa in the island’s south west corner. This memorial commemorates the American servicemen who perished on the HMS Tuscania when it was torpedoed in 1918.
Saligo and Machir Beach – These beaches are close together on the island’s North West corner, which is known as the Rhinns of Islay. Machir is the larger of these two beaches, but we prefer Saligo as it is a little more sheltered by the surrounding hills and it is just a short distance to walk from the car park.
The tides on these beaches are strong so the waters are definitely not suitable for swimming.
Islay Woolen Mill – This traditional weaver of tartan cloth is found on a side road as you travel along the A846 from Bridgend to Port Askaig. This is the place where the kilts for the film Braveheart were made. Since 1981, the mill has been run as a family business by the Covell family and they will be happy to take you on a tour. The mill is like a working museum inside. Open Mon – Sat. website
Go Island Bagging – Whilst on Islay you are so near to the Isle of Jura (just a 10 min ferry ride from Port Askaig) that it would be rude not to say hello.
Jura has a very different landscape to Islay and is a good place to go if you want some solitude and hill walking. Indeed, George Orwell stayed here in 1946 whilst writing “1984”. The house where he wrote the book is called “Barnhill” and is in a very remote location.
Of course, Jura also has a distillery which is now joined by a small Gin distillery run by 3 local ladies who collect all the ingredients on the island. The distillery is open for tours, but it is a cottage industry so you need to pre-book your tour and can’t just turn up unannounced at the door. More details on their website. https://www.lussagin.com/
With a bit more effort and planning, you can also manage to do an island hopping day trip to the Isle of Colonsay which lies ~ 6 miles north of Islay. Due to the ferry times, a day visit to Colonsay is only possible on a Wednesday and you will only have 5 hours ashore.
Colonsay, like Jura, has a small gin distillery (the humorously named “Wild Thyme Spirits”), but is otherwise a very different island feeling much tamer than more mountainous Jura.
The big attraction of Colonsay is its many beautiful beaches, crystal clear waters and the fact that only the most adventurous visitors ever go here. Get a sunny day and you’ll feel very pleased with yourself that you made the effort to discover this overlooked gem of an island.
And finally –
If you need some help with planning a Scotland tour itinerary you can contact me (Mike) via the Secret Scotland Tours website.
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