SPECIAL SECTION – Islay

Another special island section today.

Islay Coastal Rowing Club were due to join our nearest neighbours in mainland Argyll for the RowAround Scotland leg through the Crinal Canal this month. Although we like to claim we intended to row there and back with a wee sprint down the Sound of Jura to get us home, we decided we couldn’t bear the thought of missing out on Calmac fish n’chips. That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it!

Speaking of our story, here we go…

The launch of Lily Bheag in Portnahaven
Coastal rowing on Islay was already very active in the early 2000s when Lagavulin Distillery Fundraisers started with two fibreglass skiffs which were used for a series of charity ‘pillage’ rows. In addition, regular friendly races pitted teams from each distillery against other local businesses and groups of friends. When St Ayles skiffs came into being, the club decided to build one to allow us to hit the bright lights of the mainland and enter the occasional regatta. Jack, our dashing boat-builder, led the project and provided the all-important shed. Lily Bheag was launched in 2012.

A well-deserved lunch stop
Since then, two more boats – Bluebell and Bonnie Anne – have been built by the club. Two others have been built by Jack and the students of Islay High School – Ceasnachad, meaning ‘Inquiry’ and Dàn-thuras, meaning ‘adventure.’ This enables us to have boats in several locations around the island and, in theory, to row in sheltered waters despite the wind direction. In reality, living in the Hebrides means things can get pretty bouncy even on a moderate day, and the rower in the bow can find their backside loosing contact with the seat on occasion. All the more reason for some good cushions to soften the landing!

Rowing on Islay is inextricably linked to whisky. Whether as a start point, navigational aid, sponsor, or lunch stop – our distilleries are almost unavoidable while rowing round the coast of Islay. There is no need to pack your sandwiches for a ‘picnic’ row from Port Ellen when you can lunch at Ardbeg distillery. The scenic trip along the south coast of the island helps you take your mind off your blisters with stunning views of Ireland, Kintyre, and Arran. That’s not to say we don’t take cake as well, just in case we need a performance enhancing sugar rush on the way home.

Bruichladdich Distillery at sunset
Lochindaal, the sea loch that almost cuts the island in half, is perfect for an early evening row. Heading out from Bruichladdich, the size of the writing on the sea wall of Bowmore Distillery across the loch gives you a clue that you are slowly getting there. Funnily enough, there do seem to be some days when that seems to happen very slowly indeed. Timekeeping isn’t always a top priority on the islands, and more than once we’ve ended up coming home in the almost-dark. But not to worry, when all you have to do is aim for the lights of Bruichladdich Distillery to guide you home. It’s almost as if the song ‘Lights of Lochindaal’ was written with us coastal rowers in mind. At the moment Mother Nature seems to be teasing us with the calmest spell of weather anyone can remember, and it may actually be the case that ‘always in our dreams we see the lights of Lochindaal.’

And if you fancy a singalong with us in mind…

Slàinte mhath from Islay!

Heading home – on time as always!
The Oa peninsula on Islay: photo James Fenton


Jan Bee Brown, our storyteller-in-residence, tells A Tragic Tale: 1918 Islay



The American Monument is on a 429 feet (131 metres) high cliff on the Oa Peninsula. Built by the American Red Cross in 1920, in the shape of a lighthouse, it is visible from many areas on Islay. The monument commemorates the loss of two troop ships in 1918, the Tuscania and the Otranto; the location overlooks the very spot where the Tuscania sunk.

The American Monument: photos James Fenton