Please park near Ramsay Hall in Port Ellen, if you can: there is plenty of parking on the street and near the hall where you will find the buses, which will transport you to the start and will take your gear bag to the finish area. There may be a nominal charge for this transportation. Refer to Schedule of Events for bus departure times.
If you miss the bus, you'll have to arrange your transportation to the start. Buses will leave on time; so plan to park and arrive early.
The bus will not wait if you're late, so plan to arrive 15 minutes early.
Also, please be kind to our water stop volunteers and dispose of cups at the stations. Please don't litter on this beautiful place!
The start in the seaside village of Portnahaven is at the Village Hall, a brown building on your right as you enter the town. There is ample parking there but please save room for the buses to drop off runners. You may go inside the hall to keep warm and use the bathroom before the race begins. Don’t linger since the race will start on time and all finishing times are gun times – no chips!
If you want to stretch your legs and do a gentle jog into Portnahaven, you'll probably agree that this assortment of white houses outlined in red, green, blue, and yellow makes for about as quaint a start for a marathon as you’ll find. No, you won't see thousands of fans like the crowds at Berlin or New York or London but a few hardy souls will be there to see you begin your 26.2 mile journey.
The village, a planned community, was built in the 1800s with a main industry of farming (crofts) and fishing in mind. These days, while there’s still fishing, most of the crofting is gone. And, speaking of fishing, while you’re waiting for the start, be sure to look near the beach for Atlantic grey seals who enjoy showing off their acrobatics. And, after the marathon, if you have time, squeeze in a visit to An Tigh Seinnse, a pub whose name means 'the house of singing' in Gaelic – well known for friendliness and food. The little island you see is Orsay, derived from a Viking word, and its beautiful lighthouse, built in 1825 and visible for miles. A bit further up the coastal road on the Atlantic side lies the remains of an ancient stone circle.
If you decide to revisit here and head to the south-western tip of the island, you’ll see Frenchmen’s Rocks, a rugged coastline where three British frigates battled with a French fleet of three ships and drove them on to the rocks in 1760.
As you run along the single track coastal road, called the A847, and, if it’s a clear day, look across the bay and you might be able to see the six-mile stretch of golden sand called Laggan Bay. To your left (inland view) lie the Rhinns of Islay, a large peninsula of hills and valleys including a wide variety of land: farms, marshes, bogs and moorland, and dune grassland. You’ll also pass Octofad farm on your left, a working farm offering a bed and breakfast experience which is highly rated on Trip Advisor. To your right are views of the blue water of Loch Indaal, a Gaelic word meaning loch of delay. Centuries ago, captains would steer their ships here to wait out storms. The ships might be delayed here for days; hence, this word evolved.
As you look down at the beach, you might notice the occasional stone ruins of a croft or farmhouse and on a sunny day you’ll see two mountain tops in the distance – the Paps of Jura, Islay’s northern neighbor. While on this single track road, please remember that traffic comes both ways – with occasional passing places – and that you, as a runner, are vulnerable. PLEASE, run on the right hand side of the road so that you'll face oncoming traffic. Be careful and allow the cars plenty of room. Of course, early on a Sunday morning there should not be much traffic … and drivers should be aware of the marathon. This is why headphones are not allowed. We want you to be clearly aware of your surroundings.
It’s about six miles from Portnahaven to Port Charlotte, a delightful seaside town with colorful houses and shops. Rejoice! The road is now a double track! One museum you don’t want to miss is the Museum of Islay Life – a site that documents the wonderful history of this island – from medieval churchyard Celtic crosses to the ship’s bell of the Tuscania, a World War I transport that crashed on Islay’s rocky shores after being torpedoed by a German U-boat, costing 166 American soldiers their lives.
This picturesque town is a photographer’s dream – plenty of whitewashed houses and shops stuck in a time machine, a rugged beachfront, and another stunning lighthouse. When you have time, stop in the Croft Kitchen for coffee, scones, or a meal or visit the Port Charlotte Hotel for a wee dram or two. But not now! You’ve got a race to run. Keep going!
The next two-mile stretch puts you close to the rocky cliffs of the sea loch. It's hard to stop looking. Gorgeous sights everywhere. As you reach Bruichladdich, you’ve completed eight miles, about a third of the race. Congrats. So far so good. But please don’t stop in the local distillery to sample a few of its award-winning drams (Each Islay distillery wins awards, by the way). You need to be sober to finish this marathon.
The village sprang up around the Bruichladdich distillery which the Harvey brothers built in 1881, using stone they harvested from the shores of the adjacent loch. Like many of Islay’s distilleries, this one closed down but was revitalized in 2000 and became a dominant single malt producer and a rare independent one. But recently the French conglomerate Remy Cointreau purchased it, vowing to keep it going strong. Tell your friends to look at the webcams on the distillery’s website: they might see you slogging along.
Debbie’s mini mart sells reportedly the best cup of coffee on the island, offers fresh and natural vegetarian foods, and serves as the village post office. How’s that for efficiency? Give her a wave as you fly by – with wings on your heels.
For miles you’ve been running close to the water’s edge, witnessing some of Scotland’s best scenery – jet black boulders surrounded by clumps of green grass and wildflowers: running a marathon doesn’t get any better than this. And, as you pass through Bruichladdich, you’ll still be hugging the loch, marveling at nature’s finest.
From Bruichladdich to Bridgend, the next town, it’s about six miles. You’ll pass by some notable attractions. First, in the fields to your left and just beyond Lochgorm House are the ruins of an ancient chapel called Eaglais Iolarain, rumored to be dedicated to St. Hilary. A little further ahead comes a single track road (thrilling to drive on) that you can take to visit another distillery, which doubles as a working farm and a center for pony riding. Rockside Farm and Kilchoman Distillery are open to the public and are independently owned. Further down the road lie the spectacular beaches at Machir Bay and Saligo Bay. Bring your camera. If the winds are up, the sight of Atlantic waves crashing onto the rocks takes your breath away. This road is the B8018.
To the right of this road you’ll see Traigh an Luig, a sandy beach. And maybe some wildlife, too. The raised beaches are remnants of the last ice age and they’re still rising. To your left – on Uiskentuie farm – you’ll pass a standing stone (hidden over the hill), erected by a mysterious culture thousands of years ago in the Bronze Age. To catch a glimpse, you must climb the raised beach, which you might want to defer until after the marathon since you still have many miles left.
And, guess what, Old Tom Morris, the grandfather of golf, designed a course on this ground in 1896, competing for members with the
Machrie. By the early 1900s, Uiskentuie Golf Club had over 100 members but faded with time. So, as you pass the raised beach on the left of the road, tip your cap to Old Tom who was here a century ago.
As you continue along the top of Loch Indaal, you’ll see another tiny road, the B8017, that leads to another large lake, Loch Gruinart, a winter vacation spot for 37,000 Greenland barnacle geese and 13,000 whitefronts. Birders love this annual migration, although the farmers might have different opinions. Sea otters frolic along this loch as well.
A few yards further, look to your right – at an elevated stone plaque – and try to visualize the stormy night of January 24, 1943 when a RAF plane, a Sunderland Flying Boat, was attempting to land. Unfortunately horrendous gales caused the plane to skid into this beach and crash into land. The plane, heavily armed with depth charges, patrolled the north Atlantic for German submarines. The crew got out safely but, after running down the road, realized that one of their comrades was missing, still in the plane. So they returned to the plane to find him but unfortunately they lost their lives when the plane exploded. The crater is still visible on the beach – just past the intersection of B8017.
About this time you’ll reach the 13.1 mile mark where an official will mark your bib to verify you’ve reached this point and offer you fluids. If you don’t reach this point within 2:45 (about 9:15 AM), you will be asked to stop running and climb into the safety trailing vehicle for a ride to the finish. Please comply with this request. There is a six-hour time limit for the marathon, which is for your safety.
As you enter Bridgend, Islay’s most centrally located village – where the two main roads, A846 and A847, form a T-junction, you might see the cattle market on the right but, unless you take a small detour, you’ll miss the wooded baronial estate of Islay House on the left. At this junction, not quite mile 15, you’ll turn right and head down the 846. Be careful: this is a busy place.
If you can fit it into your trip, you’ll want to get a glimpse of Islay House. This 65-room mansion has expanded over the centuries but began as the Campbell vacation home in the late 1600s. The last of the Campbells of Cawdor, John, inherited Islay and this colossal residence when he was only two. By 1716, island rents were so far behind, the laird was forced to witness widespread poverty, a growing unrest, and failed crops. Food had to be imported from Ireland to keep the commoners alive. In the end, he sold Islay – to another Campbell. Later, in 1753, Daniel ‘The Younger’ inherited, at 16, his grandfather’s estates on Islay, and built the town of Bowmore. He commissioned a round church to be constructed, not square as originally intended – separate halves for Gaelic-speaking and English-speaking – but round so that the devil would have no corner to hide in, as the legend goes. The Younger laid out the town of Bowmore, after “convincing” islanders living near his sprawling Islay House that moving to this new village would be better for them. Daniel wanted privacy at his estate and didn’t think twice about evicting the locals. If you visit, keep your distance and bear in mind that this is private property and the owner does not fancy people peering into his windows.
After the marathon, head north from this intersection to visit Islay House Square where you’ll find a soothing woodland garden and a number of shops and a hotel. The square formerly housed the stables for Islay house and homes for its 120 estate workers. Must have been a lively place in those days. Today quilters and artists sell their wares here and recently Islay’s only brewery was established. Be sure to pay them a visit before you leave the island. Further north along the 846 are more adventures: an Iron Age fort of Dun Nosebridge and famous Finlaggan, the council seat of the Lords of the Isles, fearsome Viking-Scots who ruled the sea lanes and much of the Western Highlands for
centuries. Don’t miss a tour of the Islay Woollen Mill that made the tartans for the movies Braveheart and War Horse: the original building dates to 1550 and the bridge you’ll drive over was built in 1711 for seven quid. And, if you didn’t win a Braveheart tartan in the Challenge, you can buy one here.
As you begin to leave Bridgend, you’ll run through a woods and then, after a third of a mile, you’llturn left onto the B8016, known locally as “the high road,” another single track, which introduces you to the famous Scottish Western Highland moors. You’ll continue on this for about 11 miles, which will treat you to breathtaking views of not only the moors, the peat bogs and the peaty burns, but also out to Laggan Bay and maybe across to Portnahaven where you began this athletic pilgrimage. Don't miss this turn. The 846 takes longer to reach the finish!
The moors! Aye, lads and lassies the moors. Acres and acres of brown grass, patches of low growing heather (blooms purple in the autumn), bracken and moss-covered rocks. Miles of stone walls constructed without cement and holding up just fine in the gales, thank you. A few random white farm houses. And, best of all, memories of Kidnapped, that well-loved Robert Louis Stevenson novel. Go back in time in your mind while you run down this road and imagine yourself in the 1750s as young, ten-year-old Davie Balfour, who survived a shipwreck off the coast of Mull and weaved his way with a friend across these highland moors, tired, hopeless, and almost out of luck. But not quite.
Keep a watch out for cut peat – piles of it here and there. Besides using it for home heating (giving off a captivating smell of a fireside chat), Ileachs use it in the process of making their distinctive, smoky single malt whisky. Under this moorland, the peat can be several meters thick, an endless supply. If you’re really in luck, you’ll see someone cutting it.
After three miles on this road, you’ll pass over a bubbling stream, the River Laggan, which feeds into the upper end of the Grand Strand beach, that six mile stretch of sand that you might have seen across Loch Indaal, just after starting. This river drains the mountains to your left, which will come into view from time to time – Beinn Bhan (459 meters) and the tallest one in the distance, Beinn Bheigier (491 meters). The Single Malt Marathon has it all: historical ruins, white-washed seaside villages, rocky beaches, miles of moorland, and majestic peaks.
Next up is Duich River, a Gaelic name meaning black meadow. Oh, how those Gaels could name things! A mile and a half further, you’ll cross Glenegedale River and then a road leading to a farm of the same name, Gaelic for the glen of oaks, though you’ll see mostly moorland. Glenegedale House, a five-star B&B, sits at the end of this road across from the Islay airport.
Keep those feet moving and, up ahead, just past mile 20, and – yes, I know you’re tired – you’ll cross the Machrie Burn, another pretty peaty-brown stream that flows westward and empties into the beach by the golf links. Not long after this, you’ll run past two white farm houses with bright red roofs. This is near mile 21. Congratulations, you’re in the home stretch.
Marathon fan on the Oa
In two more miles you’ll leave the picturesque single track over the moors to rejoin the busy 846. Again, be careful: traffic flies along this road. Switch to the right hand side so that you are again running while facing the on-coming traffic. You'll turn right here, run a short distance, and then turn left, which will take you towards the Oa, an ancient peninsula with stone age cairns, ruins of abandoned crofting villages, majestic cliff views, sea stacks, waterfalls, and the 1918 Red Cross-erected American Monument, dedicated to the heroes who died on these shores during WWI. And, if you’re lucky enough to do some hiking here, you might see the rare clough, golden sea eagles, and highland cattle with golden-hair-covered faces and circling pointed horns, who sometimes romp on the beach.
But for now you’ve got to run past the famous, though perhaps not all that attractive, Port Ellen Maltings, now owned by Diageo, the spirit conglomerate. Founded around 1825, this former distillery ended its whisky-making days in the Great Depression (1929) but continued the maltings operations. They resumed the whisky business but closed in 1983 but kept the maltings, which today supply Islay’s distilleries to their exact specifications. Yes, it’s big business.
After passing the maltings, you’ll soon see the finish alongside Kilnaughton Bay and, on a clear day, you’ll see the coastline of Northern Ireland. The finish line is next to Ramsay Hall, an old reddish-brown stone building that serves as Port Ellen’s social hall. The hall takes its name from John Ramsay, who, at 25, became the owner the Port Ellen distillery in 1840. About 20 years earlier the laird and owner of all of Islay, Walter Frederick Campbell, established the town of Port Ellen and named it after his wife, Eleanor, but by the 1840s he was falling into serious financial trouble.
Unlike the Campbell lairds, John Ramsay was essentially a self-made man, venturing out into the world at the young age of 12. And he grew to love his adopted island of Islay, buying a piece of it, called Kildalton, from James Morrison who purchased the island when Campbell went into bankruptcy in 1848. Ramsay continued to purchase land over the years, including the Oa peninsula, and, when the potato blight and years of bad weather hit, he realized that the island could not support its population of 15,000. So he arranged for the transfer of families (even paying for the passage for some) to Canada to start a new life. In fact John was so concerned about these Ileachs that he traveled to Canada in 1870 to check on them, something that no other laird ever did. And even though all the evictions were neither harmonious or benevolent, John Ramsay did much good for Islay and is remembered with his name on this village hall.
At the finish line, you’ll receive a paper with your time and place on it and have a chance to get food and drink inside warm Ramsay Hall. If you have won a trophy, please stay for the trophy presentation. But if you will be leaving the island soon, you may take your trophy at this time.
And, if you plan to stay for another day, don’t miss driving through Port Ellen to explore the southeastern coastline of Islay. Just outside of the village, heading east, you’ll come across a bonanza of archaeological ruins ranging from the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age periods to the chapels and crosses built by the sailor-monks of St. Columba – all within a few miles of each other. A kaleidoscope of history – several standing stones, several chambered cairns, and the remains of Dunyvaig, the ruined fort where, in 1614, the English blasted away the last hopes of the MacDonalds, signaling the end of the reign of the Lords of the Isles.
Continue on this road to visit three of the most famous single malt distilleries in the world, all sitting next to one another – Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg. Be sure to stop for a tasting at Laphroaig, the only Islay single malt to bear the royal imprint. Seems that Laphroaig 10-year is the Prince of Wales' favorite.
A few miles ahead is an old churchyard that holds one of Scotland’s treasures, the Kildalton eighth century cross, a masterpiece of sculpture, having been carved out of a solid slab of local grey-green epidiorite stone, which has battled the elements and kept its religious features for 1300 years. Many consider this nearly nine-foot Christian icon the finest example of Scotland’s Celtic crosses. You’ll also marvel at the numerous grave slabs of medieval warriors, the Islay Lords of the Isles. Another bonus of this drive comes with views of a rugged, rocky coast, sandy inlets, and perhaps a glimpse of red fallow deer or seals.