The island of Islay (pronounced Isla by local residents) is probably best known for the output of its ten famous distilleries which produce malt whisky of the highest standard. In the world of diving it is equally famous for its incredible concentration of shipwrecks.
The island’s position, lying to the north east of the North Channel, and the prevailing on shore south west winds, have made it the final resting place of hundreds of vessels from the earliest to modern times. The west coast, with its sweeping beaches and sand dunes interspersed by some imposing cliffs is a desolate place when the weather is bad and the winds is from the west or south west. The ferocious tides which sweep past the Rhinns and the Mull of Oa add another hazard for passing ships. In the narrow sound between Islay and Jura the tides race through at up to six knots at spring tides – yet another difficulty in navigating round the island’s coast. Finally the south coast has hundreds of hidden rocks and reefs which guard the entrance to Port Ellen, the island’s main port. In all, it is not an area for the inexperienced or careless seaman.
The main centres of population are spread round the coast at Bowmore, Port Ellen and Port Charlotte but picturesque Portnahaven and Port Wemyss are an essential stop off on a tour round the island. Inland the scenery is fairly barren with the centre of the island dominated by a huge peat bog – still the source of heating fuel for many of the islanders. However, the unusual variety of geology and habitats – dunes and cliffs, peat bogs and mud flats – make Islay a paradise for bird watchers.
The wreck chart of Islay clearly illustrates the most dangerous areas being those of strong tides and exposed coastline. Islay is also blessed with clear waters from the Atlantic, rich in colourful sealife. There are a number of sites around the headlands at the Rhinns, the Mull of Oa and also in the middle Sound of Islay where exciting drift dives can be experienced, provided you have reliable boat cover. Many of the wrecks around Islay lie close inshore on exposed coastlines and have been reduced to piles of wreckage fused and concreted into the rocky seabed such as the Belford, Thomas, Agate and to a lesser degree the mighty Otranto.
There are also a number of wrecks located to the west of Islay in deep water below 50 metres such as the Englishman and Regina, and further west and south the killing grounds of the U-Boats from the first and second world wars, where a veritable graveyard of shipwrecks can be found.