Glasgow to Islay Flights, with a Difference
It’s been several years since my last jolly over to Scotland’s whisky island. A dismal effort on my part. Home to some of the very biggest brands in the drinks industry and a completely unique island economy, it’s among the most fascinating jewels we’ve got to offer. But, me being me, I’m always on the lookout for alternative ways of doing things and I’ve long fancied trying this journey from the air. Ferry travel (from Oban or Kennacraig) would be the default course of action here, but Glasgow to Islay flights were not something I’d looked into before. Specifically, hopping aboard a private plane to whisk me over to Whiskyland in less than an hour….
The Glasgow to Islay Flight
I was invited to experience this somewhat unorthodox journey by Wingly, a group that pair up local pilots – and small aircraft – with travellers keen on taking to the skies. The aircraft in this case holds a maximum of 4 people and was piloted by the wonderful Allan, who merges his many years of aviation experience with a proud passion for air travel. He skilfully navigated through some high winds and merrily chatted over the myriad of coastal land formations below. It feels hands-on. Everyone helps push the plane out of the hangar, you’re in close-quarters and the experience is entirely immersive. Therein lies the appeal – this is a much more personal experience than the sardine-packed, ultra-controlled conventions of typical air travel.
Although calling itself ‘Glasgow’ Prestwick, in truth Ayrshire’s airfield is around a 40-minute drive away from the city. But, given that it is hardly used by anyone outside the military these days, you’ll be on board quicker than anything you’d face at Glasgow International. No passport control, no queues, just straight from car to aircraft. There are multiple flight route options which should be discussed with your pilot, but Islay Airport can be reached in well under an hour of flying time from Prestwick.
From the air you’ll cross over the Ayrshire coast, the Isles of Bute and Arran, the Kintyre Peninsula and little Gigha before landing. You’ll get superb views over to the distinctive Paps of Jura and to Colonsay. Looking north you’ll spot Mull and maybe even the promise of the Outer Hebrides on a clear day. This Glasgow to Islay flight will completely change your perspective of the west coast, even if you do claim to know these lands well. It’s always a bit of a slog getting to the Hebrides (there’s no escaping it and that’s part of the experience) but having this lot almost literally in the palm of your hand was like nothing I’d ever encountered before.
Islay has nine distilleries spread nicely across the island. That concentration is quite simply obscene and only Speyside in the north east of mainland Scotland can compete. It feels a little like there are almost as many distilleries as homes and it’s a glorious headscratcher that some of the most recognised brands in the world come from this remote and tranquil land. Each and every one of the whisky houses has their own personality, not just in their produce but within their walls too. Truly, you’ll never completely know Scotland until you’ve got your head around the workings of our amazing distilleries.
The Big Three, The Holy Trinity, The Triumvirate.
Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg are the titans that rule Islay’s south coast. Virtual next-field neighbours, they all enjoy a waterside setting and a confident aura. They’re sexy and they know it.
Let’s start with the exteriors. The distilleries themselves each have their own booming sea-facing wall branding. Not just for Instagram purposes, this was to let ships know which distillery they were actually unloading at.
Let your mind go a bit here. In an image that would have inspired R.L. Stevenson, stormy coastal landings on Islay would have, in times past, concluded with that faint wall lettering just about visible through thick drizzle. Destination reached, can you feel the relief from all on board?
Within, the production process may be very similar for all distilleries, but those magic individual ingredients make all the difference. The water source, the mighty stills themselves, the casks (barrels)…all combine to give the unique end product that is adored and cherished by drinkers across the globe. Their drams are liquid peat in their early years, with more subtle flavours creeping in as they get older. For some it is instant thunderbolt love, for others sheer horror and flabbergasted confusion. Wonderful, indeed.
Ardbeg – start with the 10-year-old. For me there is no finer introduction to smoky, peaty whisky. You’ll know very quickly whether this stuff is the start of a Casablanca moment, or never to be flirted with again.
Lagavulin – got to be the 16-year-old, an ever-present on my shelf at home. A sensory explosion of all the tasting notes you’d expect and more. If you’re at the Distillery, look into a tour involving a tasting of the Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition too.
Laphroaig – I love the Quarter Cask, whereby smaller casks have been used in the maturation process to intensify the flavours. The unapologetically medicinal aromas of the young stuff will kill or cure for sure, but this guy is much more rounded.
These three are all within walking distance of each other, with a helpfully-created walkway separating them for those under the influence. Which, frankly, you’d better be otherwise you’re not doing Islay right!
The Complete Day Out
Unlike several of its island competitors that are jostling for your attention, Islay is not all sumptuous beaches and rugged mountains. Much of the inland terrain delivers bland vistas of endless peat bogs that, on the face of it at least, aren’t the most inviting. But that misty, inhospitable atmosphere is some powerful stuff and Islay does the ‘quintessentially Scottish’ thing with bravado. It’s not somewhere I could spend weeks exploring in the way that I could on Mull or the Outer Hebrides, but that does tee it up as the ideal day-trip candidate.
While it is possible to make your flying trip one-way, that wasn’t what I was after. Especially as a repeat visitor, I was more in pursuit of the experience than for an extended trip. Get up, jump in the car, straight onto a plane, flight, land, do stuff, return. My experience allowed for around 5 hours on Islay and I was back home in Glasgow for dinner. Nowhere near enough time to take on the whole island, but plenty to fit in a visit to several distilleries and get a taste of the coastline as well.
Taxis or car hire are available from the airport and don’t worry too much about getting from terminal 1 to terminal 23 – they like to keep things simple on the Scottish islands. There are regular commercial flights from both Edinburgh and Glasgow to Islay, but this personal experience is way more fun.
Take it from me, you’ll not forget it in a hurry.
Although invited to participate in a flight with Wingly, I selected a route (Glasgow to Islay flights were something I’ve long been curious about) and planned an itinerary that I felt would resonate most helpfully for you good people. My endorsement of this as a great way to realise something pretty unique is based on having a straightforward process, a great pilot and a fantastic experience that presented Islay to me in a wholly new way compared to previous visits.
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