Farming and Distilling on the Rhinns of Islay


The Rhinns of Islay is the western peninsula that comprises around a third of the total land area of the island. The Gaelic version is ‘Rinns’,  ‘Rhinns’ being an English spelling invented by romantic Victorian cartographers who thought that the extra letter looked more authentic.

It is fascinating to see how dramatically the farming regimes have changed over the years and how this reflects the development of whisky distilling.  Islay saw a huge rise in population in the 18th century driven by the availability of the potato and basic health care.  The census of 1831 put the population at over 15,000, but changes in the political landscape and then the potato famines saw a steady decline, which continues to this day.  Anyone walking the moors is likely to come across the rather sad remains of runrig surrounding villages that were abandoned during the Highland Clearances.

The relatively fertile ‘in-bye land’around these villages would have supported essentially subsistence farming of potatoes and oats with some root crops such as turnips.  However, in the 18th century, barley would have been grown to support the widespread, and illegal, distilling of uisge baugh, which was the white spirit from which modern single malt whisky evolved.

Farming and Distilling on the Rhinns of IslayOutbye land, the open moorland with rough grazing and relatively poor soils, would have originally supported black Highland cattle.  Their milk was used to make cheese that would hopefully sustain a family through the long winter with the calves being sold to drovers who would walk them to mainland markets.

Latterly the cattle increasingly gave way to sheep as the human population was cleared from the land.  Many displaced Ilich moved to the mainland cities springing up during the Industrial Revolution, many emigrated overseas and some moved into the new villages of Port Charlotte, Portnahaven and Bruichladdich which were built on the Rhinns during the 19th Century.

It was no longer possible to grow enough barley on Islay cheaply enough to supply the big commercial distilleries, including Bruichladdich, that developed here in the 19th century.  The vast majority of the grain used had to be imported.  Barley and oats would still have been grown, but as fodder for horses and cattle.  Dairy farming became more important as the old runrig fell into disuse, but this too was to eventually fade away on the Rhinns with the closure of the Islay Creamery in Port Charlotte in 2000.

Islay farmers are an innovative group though, and history shows how they have been able to adapt to the changes forced upon them over the centuries.  While beef and lamb are now the principle agricultural products, the degree of diversification that has come about has been impressive.  At the forefront of this diversification over the past nine years has been the readiness of an increasing number of farmers to grow malting barley for Bruichladdich.  This is all the more extraordinary because there is no historical precedent.

Ten farms delivered a total of 920 lovely tonnes of the golden grain to Bruichladdich this year.  A fantastic achievement once again in this difficult marginal environment, and one we hope will be repeated for many years to come.

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