The Islay Legends

    The Legend of
the Gulls

Legend has it that a pair of gulls fly ceaselessly above Lochindaal, on the shores of which lies the Bowmore Distillery.

When the Scots spread from their Celtic homeland to create the Kingdom of Dalriada–in–Alban, the Pictish and Brythonic tribes who already occupied the lands resisted fiercely. Much blood was spilt as war raged between them and the incomers.

Legend has it that the daughter of a Pictish King fell in love with a captured Scottish warrior and helped him escape. Together they fled westwards to the Isles. As they rowed towards the young warrior’s home on the shores of Lochindaal, the sea loch which bites into the heart of Islay, a terrible storm lashed their boat, sending it crashing against the rocks.

The young Scot’s clansmen found only splintered wreckage of the boat and no trace of the lovers – but a pair of white gulls soared and swooped together across the Loch, settling neither on the western nor the eastern shore, as if torn between the two.

The legend endures, and today, before a storm, the Bowmore Distillery echoes to the haunting cry of a pair of gulls.


The Legend of
the Devil

Legend has it that in 1837, on a clear winter’s evening, the devil visited the church in Bowmore. 

The church was round in shape, purposely built, in preparation for such a visit as there were no corners in which the devil could hide. The local congregation chased the devil from the church. He fled through the village, eventually finding a hiding place in Bowmore distillery. The villagers raced through the distillery, in search of the devil.

That night the Warehousemen were filling the golden Bowmore whisky into casks and loading them aboard The Maid of Islay, the tiny paddle steamship used for transporting Bowmore whisky to the mainland. All the distillery doors and gates were slammed shut and locked to prevent the devil’s escape. The distillery was searched from the maltbarns to the mash house, but the devil was nowhere to be found. The Maid of Islay, loaded with the last cask of Bowmore, gave a loud blast of her horn and paddled off across the calm Loch Indaal into the clear dark night.

The devil was never found that night, but, as legend goes, escaped in a cask of Bowmore destined for the mainland. Whether The Maid of Islay ever reached the mainland is not known, but on certain still winter nights, the sound of the sea lapping against the distillery wall is akin to the faint paddling of a small steamship in the distance.



The Legend of the

Legend has it that Lachlan Bàn, an Islay crofter, was returning home one stormy night when, through the darkness, he saw a ghostly sight. The silhouette of a headless horseman galloping away from his house. Lachlan turned pale.

On entering the house, Lachlan felt an eerie coldness. The fire he had left blazing, only an hour before, had gone out. In the middle of the stone floor was a circular damp stain, and on the table stood an opened bottle of Bowmore Malt whisky with a large dram missing. What kind of creature had visited?

Accepting gifts, even Bowmore whisky, from such a fearful intruder could only lead to misfortune thought Lachlan. So he threw the bottle out into the wet night, bolting the door behind him, and spent a troubled night listening to the howls of the wind and the rattling of the windows, fearful for his life. The next night at the local Inn Lachlan related the frightening tale to a hushed group of locals. 

The following week Lachlan’s brother called to him. “Lachlan, I passed last Friday night during that dreadful storm. The wind had forced your door open and blown out the fire, I brought a bottle of Bowmore to share with you, but I couldn’t wait long, so I took a quick dram and rode for home with my cloak pulled tight over my head to keep out the rain.” Too embarrassed to tell, Lachlan never related the true story to the villagers.

To this day, no true Ileach offers an opened bottle of whisky to guests. A fresh bottle is always opened and the cork thrown into the fire so that the guest can be sure that the headless horseman has not returned....Or is it just an excuse for another dram of Bowmore?





The Legend of
the Princess

The King of Giants was gravely warning his daughter, Iula. “You must never go over the sea, it is dangerous, even for a giant.” Iula nodded in agreement and went to bed.

But the beautiful giantess did not sleep and as the full moon rose, her spirit of adventure lifted too. She crept down to the beach, where she gathered large rocks to use as stepping stones. Then Iula gently placed them, one by one, in front of her into the sea.

She went on, all through the night until, exhausted, she reached the shores of a dark island. But, in the soft sands of the shore, her footsteps sank and the sea washed over her, claiming her for its own.

The island she discovered took her name and, to this day, Islay is named in her honour.



The Legend of the
and the Angel

Long ago a cruel, but god-fearing, Laird journeyed in search of a bride. On the shores of Loch Indaal he met a starving fisherman and his bride to be. The Laird instantly fell in love with the beautiful girl and offered to buy her hand in marriage. The fisherman knew that he could never give his bride wealth, like the Laird, so heartbroken he reluctantly gave his bride away.

Years passed but no love blossomed between them. Each day she saw her true love pass by on his way back from the Loch and each night she wept into her pillow and yearned to be with him.

The cruel Laird overheard her tears and made her an offer, “If you can steal my soul by the morn’ I shall turn to stone and you may go free. But if you fail you will stay and love me as you love him”. She agreed.

As night fell the girl thought long and hard of how to steal a man’s soul. Just then she saw the fisherman pass by and, in a flash of inspiration, called down to him: “My love, bring me your catch at midnight and we may be together forever” Puzzled, the fisherman agreed.

Midnight came and he brought his catch to her. All night the girl gutted the fish and sewed together the silvery scales into a beautiful dress. Just before dawn the Laird awoke as the day’s first rays of sun shone brightly onto the girl’s dress. Believing her to be an angel from heaven, the god-fearing Laird fell to his knees and pledged his soul to her. Upon revealing her true self, he turned to stone and free she ran off to be with her true love once more.



The Legend of
the Sea Maiden

The old fisherman looked forlornly at his dripping, empty net. Suddenly, a sea-maiden rose to the surface of the sea.
“I will give you good fishing in return for your first born son,” said she.

Desperately hungry, the fisherman eagerly consented. Soon a son was born to him, but he could not give up the boy. A soothsayer said that to break the promise, the boy would have to find the ghostly white deer that so many feared, slay it, and break the golden egg hidden inside.

Years later, the son – now a young man – went on a quest for the deer. The sea-maiden was angry, but before she could push the old fisherman into the sea, the son slew the deer and smashed the egg into a million pieces. The promise was broken and the sea-maiden banished to the deep forever.





The Legend of
the Hero's

They blessed my ship with soft flowing words of farewell. I gave her prow to the sea and her stern to the land. The sails flapped against the splintery masts.

I drove on till I REACHED HOME,
where those who loved me waited.

Songs were sung and smooth drinks raised. Music in fiddle-strings to the ever-healing of all ills, that would mend men's hearts and soothe women in travail. With the hero's fatigue I slept.



The Legend of
the Sea Dragon

Legend has it that the greatest Scottish warrior of all, Fionn mac Cumhaill – also known as Fingal – was walking across Islay with his two massive hounds: Bran and Seeolang.

Fionn, who was possessed of supernatural powers and superhuman strength, hoisted a large standing stone and threw it half-way across the island – into the depths of Loch Indaal – for his dogs to fetch back. The splash made by the stone stirred the dark sands at the bottom of the Loch, and with them stirred from his thousand year sleep the sleeping form of the sea-dragon Kranna Dubh.

Kranna surged up from the depths and swam to the shore at Bowmore to meet with Fionn in combat. A fierce battle ensued, ending with Kranna lurching back into the loch, mortally wounded by Fionn’s magical sword, Mac a’Luin, his dark blood seeping into the waters.

It is said that when the sun sets, Loch Indaal turns red with his blood – and that local mothers scold their children severely, if ever they catch them pitching stones into the Loch.


The Blacksmith
and the Fairies

A long time ago – so the legend goes – a blacksmith lived high on the Rhinns of Islay, with fine views across Loch Indaal to Bowmore. His one son laboured hard with him in his forge.

Suddenly, the son fell ill. He lay on his bed, getting thinner, but eating more and more. No one knew what was wrong. One day, an old man famous for his wisdom walked into the forge, and over a dram of old Bowmore whisky, the smith told him about his son.

‘It is not your son you have got!’ the old man cried immediately. ‘Evil fairies have taken him to the fairy hill, leaving a changeling - a fairy impostor - in his place! But fear not, I’ll help you rescue him!’

On the next full moon, he said, the fairy hill would be open. He told the smith to approach on that night, armed with a dagger and a cockerel that would crow loudly and readily. The smith did so, and drew near the fairy hill in the moonlight. He approached the entrance, and following the old man’s instructions, thrust the dagger into it, to stop it closing on him. The fairies shrieked when he entered, furious he had dared enter their realm. But he saw his son labouring at the fairy forge and cried ‘I want my son and I will not go without him!’

The fairies cackled loudly at this, maddening the cockerel. It flapped its wings wildly and crowed loud and long – incensing the fairies further. They seized the smith and his son, threw them out of the hill and flung the dagger after them. The hillside closed over. And from that day on, the smith and his son laboured at their forge, creating wonderful weapons, the like of which had never been seen beyond the fairy realm.





The Legend of
Godred Grovan

Goraidh Crobhan (pron: Gorry Crow-van) was an Islay hero. According to the ancient stories, he was the son of Harald the Black of Isla and his mother was a descendant of the House of Erc, so he was popular with the people of both the Norse and Celtic clans.

It seems that, at one time, Islay was being attacked and harassed by a wild, fierce dragon which had its den near Ballygrant, in the north of Islay. It was said that, because the dragon had attacked almost all the islanders, nothing could be seen on the island except the smoke rising from the three single households that had been left unscathed.

Crobhan – whose galley was anchored at the head of Lochindaal, near Bowmore – heard the story and decided to take action.

He galloped on horseback to the dragon’s den, taking with him three old horses, which he placed at intervals along the route. He goaded the dragon into coming out of his den and giving chase across the island. Crobhan galloped on with the dragon at his heels. When the dragon came to the first horse, he stopped, wolfed it down, then continued the chase. The same thing happened with the other two horses.  Each stop gave Goraidh Crobhan time to keep ahead of the dragon.

By this time, the dragon was so full of food that he became slow and sluggish in his movements. From the shore to his ship, Crobhan had laid a line of barrels from the distillery at Bowmore, on which he had hammered iron stakes. Crobhan leaped across the barrels, but the old dragon, full and moving laboriously, was impaled –leaving Crobhan to finish him off for the people of Islay.



The Battle of

The Battle of Gruinard was a famous, ferocious Islay battle. The Clan Maclean of Mull and the Macdonalds of Islay each claimed to be the rightful owner of the Rhinns of Islay, the peninsula that lies across Loch Indaal from the distillery at Bowmore.

Maclean decided to come to Islay to get the land back. Before leaving Mull, Maclean consulted a wise woman. She gave him three warnings: never land in Islay on a Thursday, never drink from Strange Neil's Well, and never fight on the shores of Loch Gruinard. Heed these,she said and you will leave Islay alive. Ignore these, and you will die from one single blow!

Maclean set off. He had planned to land on a Wednesday, but because of terrible weather was delayed, and had to land on a Thursday. Maclean has disregarded the first warning. On landing, Maclean asked for a drink. He was given what was called the best water in Islay’. Then, he was told it was from Strange Neil's Well. Too late, he remembered the wise woman's warning! Nevertheless, Maclean persevered. He chose a battle site and hoisted the Maclean flag. As the men gathered for battle, he was told this was Gruinard - the very place the old woman had warned him against.

Maclean had disregarded the woman's words of wisdom in every respect. Despite this, Maclean carried on, preparing for battle. Just before the battle began, a small, dark hunch-backed dwarf, called Dubh Sith, came to Maclean to offer his services. Dubh Sith was not only the son of a fairy mother, he was well known as an archer. But Maclean scorned and mocked him. Furious, Dubh Sith sided with Macdonald in the battle, with one aim: to kill Maclean. He hid in a rowan tree waiting for Maclean, and then took careful aim with his bow, and killed Maclean with one single arrow.

Maclean had disregarded the three warnings and was dead; the Macdonalds won the Battle of Gruinard, thus regaining the Rhinns of Islay.



The Legend of
Donnachie Mhor

Legend has it, that long ago in the village of Bowmore, on the Island of Islay, lived an illicit distiller called Donnachie Mhor. He was loved for his good humoured pranks but loathed by the Customs man for his illegal whisky production.

Donnachie's infamous whisky still was old and leaking. Being a poor man he could not afford to replace it but devised a cunning plan. He carried the old still to the nearby peat moor, where it was buried and the spot marked with a sheep's skull.

Some weeks later he met the Customs man in the local Inn. In conversation, Donnachie explained that he had turned over a new leaf and his days of illicit whisky making were gone forever. The Customs man was pleased but suspicious, so to prove his new character, Donnachie volunteered to take the Customs man to where he knew an illegal still was hidden.

At midnight they set out across the peat moor. After much searching they found a sheep's skull and Donnachie suggested they start digging. As they dug through the soft peat they struck the copper still.

The Customs man, delighted with such a find, proudly carried the still back to Bowmore village where he and Donnachie enjoyed a few drams of the Bowmore Malt in celebration. Donnachie was given a handsome reward for reporting the illegal still. The reward enabled Donnachie to purchase a brand new larger illegal still!





The Legend of St. Ives

Legend has it that in May 1813 during the Napoleonic Wars, a young French soldier - St. Ives - was captured by his British enemies.

Spared execution due to his knowledge of the English language, St. Ives was selected for special employment and imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle. During his imprisonment, St. Ives met and fell in love with a young visitor to the castle, Flora Gilchrist.

Following his escape from prison, he evaded recapture, ultimately making a daring escape from his captors by hot air balloon. The balloon was carried westward by the east winds, eventually crashing on Loch Indaal, upon whose shores stands Bowmore Distillery.

St. Ives was rescued from the icy waters by the True Blooded Yankee, a formidable American brig o' war, that was holding Bowmore under siege. Later released to safety, St. Ives was to be re-united with his beloved Flora.



   Updated 10-12-2018


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