Islay formed part of the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata in the sixth century AD – the 2.7m-high Kildalton Cross erected in 800AD still stands in the south-east of the island – and this situation lasted for 300 years until the arrival of the Vikings, which would change the history of Islay forever. The island remained under Norse rule, defying the Scottish kingdom and leading the independence of the Western Isles from the mainland.
By the mid-12th century, the warrior Somerled rebelled against Islay’s Scandinavian settlers, helping Scotland reclaim the island, although Somerled’s descendants would rule Islay independently as ‘Lords of the Isles’, a state of affairs that lasted for a few hundred years. They based themselves at Loch Finlaggan near Port Askaig; ruins from the settlement are still visible today.
Islay only came under direct Scottish rule from the mid-15th century, after a plot to help the English king conquer Scotland in return for Islay’s independence was rumbled. The Lord of the Isles is now the heir to the Scottish throne. In terms of ownership, the bulk of the island is divided up among five separate estates: Dunlossit and Islay Estate (the two largest landowners), Ardtalla, Foreland and Laggan.
Islay’s nickname – Queen of the Hebrides
Over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries clan rebellions across Scotland were a common occurrence. Historically, the largest and most important Highland clan were the Campbell’s, whose homelands were based in the region of Argyll. This included ownership of the Isle of Islay, but despite occupying a dominant position of power on mainland Scotland, on Islay the Campbell’s acted largely as absentee lairds. As a result the island failed to prosper for most of this time period.
By the early 18th century, the Cawdor Campbell’s struggled to maintain power over their estates on Islay due to low earnings and famine. A change of island ownership pursued when wealthy business man and politician, Daniel Campbell of Shawfield, became laird. This was to be a welcome change for Islay as the economy began to thrive thanks to the improvement of farming methods and introduction of a textile industry.
The next generation continued to modernise the island with the construction of the village of Bowmore, the development of roads, a fishing industry, the provision of schools and the promotion of the church. Islay’s first whisky distillery was established during this time period: Bowmore, built in 1779. Previously, illegal distillation had been popular among croft settlements due to heavy spirits taxation. It therefore came as no surprise that the island was well equipped for the future development of a commercial whisky industry which was to follow in the early 19th century.
The current Lord of the Isles – Prince Charles
By the time 3rd generation laird, Walter Frederick Campbell, took over island ownership in 1816, Islay had flourished. The population was growing rapidly as the new villages of Port Ellen, Port Charlotte and Port Wemyss were built. Another three distilleries were established in the south of the island – Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin, along with many of today’s lost distilleries built at the time, such as the renowned Port Ellen distillery. Commercial development of the distilling industry had well and truly begun.
The 1840’s brought a time of turbulence to Islay as the potato famine began to hit the agricultural communities of the Hebrides. This prompted landlords and locals to take matters into their own hands and leave the island behind. It is estimated that about a third of the population of western Scotland emigrated to countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada between 1841 and 1861. Such a difficult period led Walter Frederick Campbell to bankruptcy in 1848. The Islay estates were split up and sold off to private individuals, and much of the island remains in the ownership of a few individuals today.
Islay’s long history of human settlement and tales of the Lordship of the Isles, an empire independent of the Scottish crown, has forged a unique landscape on the island. Today it is home to both ruins of the past and a thriving modern society, albeit only a population of 3,228 (2011 census) which is a quarter of the 15,000 inhabitants in the 1830s.
Islay in the 21st century is now home to eight world famous distilleries, which has provided much tourism and income for the main agricultural industries of the island. Together with an improved road network and daily ferry and air services, the island has become an attractive hub for both business and leisure, attracting tens of thousands of visitors every year.