Wild and Magic Islay is an independent tour operator run by local Rachel MacNeill offering tours that give and up close and personal experience on Islay that provides an in-depth look at the culture, history and landscape that you wouldn’t get from your typical bus tour.
Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Rachel more about her fun and unique ventures and she was happy to discuss the ins and outs as well as why she’s so excited to share her knowledge and love of Islay.
Europe Travel: What made you decide to start Wild and Magic Islay?
Rachel MacNeill: Wild and Magic Islay came into being following my adventure to the country of Ladakh in the Himalayas. I met a guy there called Baljit who took people out in the mountains. They camped in beautiful places, and by being out in nature his guests felt the cares of the world fall off their shoulders. I said, “‘I want to do this in Islay. I want take people along the beach, or up a hill and let them see as far as their eyes can see. I want to make them fires and give them picnics, and let them feel the wind and the sun on their face.” So, when I returned home I started Wild and Magic Islay Travel Co. I wanted to make my guests feel part of nature during the day, but to have comfort and a lovely bed to sleep in at night. Like a luxurious island safari!
Ladakh reminded me of what the isles of Colonsay and Islay would have been like at the time when my Dad was a wee boy. Life in Ladakh is only different through time, not through geography. Ladakh is a semi-autonomous landscape surrounded by mountains, Islay is a semi-autonomous landscape surrounded by sea. I felt very at home there. I wrote a blog about it www.wildandmagic.blogspot.com
I started Wild and Magic Islay around three years ago, and Whisky for Girls about two years ago.
Whisky for Girls started as a joke really. We were sitting drinking whisky, and my friend from Germany asked me if all my friends drank whisky. I said; “No, not enough women drink whisky! I’m going to start a company telling them all about it. And we will call it Whisky for Girls.” And so I did ~ and it has really taken off.
Europe Travel: Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
Rachel MacNeill: I am from the Isle of Colonsay, my family are MacNeills from Oransay. The MacNeills are the boat builders. When Noah was hurrying to get everyone into the ark, he was waving MacNeill aboard. MacNeill turned round and said, “It’s all right, Noah; we’ve got our own boat!” And we are still here.
My father brought us to Islay when I was one. We farmed Daill farm in the centre of the island, the biggest single farm in Islay, it’s about the size of the island of Gigha.
I left home after high school and worked in hospitality in the UK and abroad, living in Australia for a year or so. I ran the government controlled betting office in a fancy golf club in Paramatta, Sydney. They offered me sponsorship to stay in Australia, but, I returned to Scotland for Love! I had my daughter, went to university in Glasgow and Sheffield, then, came back to Islay and set up RMN Architectural Services.
I was working in architecture when I went to Ladakh. But, I find it is much more fun to construct a tour than draw plans for a house. Architecture suited my mind, but the work I do now suits my personality. I don’t feel like I am working half the time ~ it’s so easy!
Europe Travel: What is the easiest way for travelers to get to the Isle of Islay?
Rachel MacNeill: The easiest way for travelers to get to the Isle of Islay is to fly from Glasgow airport. There are flights twice a day and three times a day in the summer. The flight takes approximately 30 minutes. Alternatively one can drive to Kennacraig on the Kintyre peninsula and take the ferry over to either Port Ellen or Port Askaig, on Islay. The ferry journey takes about 2 hours. One can also get a bus from Buchanan bus station in Glasgow to Kennacraig. The journey time is around 3.5 hours.
Europe Travel: Is there something about the Isle of Islay that makes it stand out from the other Scottish Isles to visit?
Rachel MacNeill: The easy answer to this question would be ~ the distilleries! We have eight single malt whisky distilleries on Islay. But, that is not the whole story. There is something magical about Islay. People are enchanted by it. There are not many who visit who do not return at some point in the future. Islay is called The Queen of the Hebrides, she is also called The Green Isle. Islay is a very fertile island with a lovely rich verdant valley running through from Bridgend to Ballygrant. We have an abundance of wildlife and many, many different species of birds. Thousands of geese flock to Islay to overwinter.
Islay was the home of the Lords of the Isles in 10, 11 & 12th centuries. From their base in Finlaggan they controlled the Western seaboard from the islands in the North of Scotland, areas in Ireland and down to the Isle of Man and beyond. Their power would be equivalent to that of the government in Edinburgh today. They ruled a Sea Kingdom.
The place of Finlaggan itself is powerful and exhibits something unusual. Years ago, I worked there as a summer tour guide. I used to walk from the main road to the Loch and as I came over the hill and looked down to Finlaggan I would feel a change in the energy of the land. Many visitors, especially women, would tell me that as they came over the hill and saw Loch Finlaggan stretched out in front of them they felt something quicken and change around them. They would say this to me before I mentioned anything of my feelings. Society always builds their power places on natural power places in the landscape.
Also, there is a rock formation over in the west of the island, at Saligo. It resembles a huge sleeping warrior. They say that come the time the island needs him the warrior will awaken to protect the land of Islay.
I think subconsciously people who visit feel these things. They may not understand them, but they are drawn and feel secure nevertheless. Apart from the obvious delights of the island ~ the views, the wildlife, the beaches, the culture, the whisky, the hospitality, there is something else about Islay that draws people; something that defies categorization, something magical.
Europe Travel: What time of year is best for travelers to visit?
Rachel MacNeill: This is an interesting question, because one would automatically assume that the answer would be: in the summer. But I think late spring and early autumn are good times to visit. In the summer the island can be really busy. It is not quite so bad at each end of the season. It is like at the Feis Ile ~ the Islay Whisky Festival, people think this is a great time to visit the distilleries ~ and it is. But…it is sometimes far better to come in the winter when there are very few visitors and perhaps there will only be yourself on the distillery tour. It depends what one is looking for from their holiday. If you want to come for the beaches and the wild life then summer is a good time, but if you want to explore, and experience the culture and the quiet life of Islay, then choose your time earlier or later.
Europe Travel: What is your most unique tour, and which is the most popular?
Any time of year! We provide tours 365 days per year – 24 hours per day. London is the best city in Europe – come rain or shine!
Europe Travel: What are some of your favorite spots on Islay?
Rachel MacNeill: They are all unique! A gentleman from Canada sent me an email once asking for a price for a tour, he said, “I am sure you are familiar with the tour companies offering a similar thing, and so what can you offer in competition?” I told him that I never look at other tour companies websites. I just make up a tour that I think is lovely, cost it all out and offer it to people. For me it’s a bit like…if you build it they will come. I don’t do market research or anything. I just do what I think is great fun and offer it with integrity. I give people 110%. I only take small groups. I do the loveliest things and the best quality and support local. It is what is says ~ Wild and Magic Islay!
I make up tours to suit the individual characters of the people who email. One can get a general feel for the type of person who is coming from a few emails. It is fun. Any interesting thought that comes into my head to make the tour better, I organize it for the guests. I get Gaelic teachers who are my friends to come with us and chat with the guests and I get the old men of the parish who have good whisky stories to come with us. I ask my friend who is an expert on birds to come on the dawn wildlife stalking tours. I involve everyone I can think of to make it the best experience possible ~ and in amongst it all ~ I am having a great time myself!
Probably my most popular tour is SPIRIT OF ISLAY. This tour incorporates the distilleries, the sites of historical importance and the loveliest places I can think of to take people to. We go to places where we can whistle on the seals, visit standing stones that have been here since the beginning of time, walk to the ancient Seat of the Lords of the Isles at Finlaggan. This tour includes a taste of all the best that Islay has to offer. Tours are tailored according to the weather. For example we would walk a certain beach if the wind was from the West, but if it was from the South we would walk a different one, or visit the Museum of Islay Life, or a distillery, if it rained.
Europe Travel: What are some of the common local foods found on Islay?
Rachel MacNeill: Some of the best food found on Islay would have to be seafood. We have restaurants like the Harbour Inn and the Port Charlotte Hotel offering fresh scallops, prawns, crab and lobster. We also have Oyster growers in Loch Gruinart. We have an excellent community garden at Islay House where you can pick potatoes, soft fruits, lettuce, carrots ~ whatever is available at the time. There is also a small business making jam from seasonal local fruits ~ brambles, raspberries etc. We have some of the best fresh milk and cream available from Eskinish dairy, and you can get hold of haunches of venison and brown trout if you know who to ask. Also, when the mackerel come in people will go fishing and they will just give you as many as you want. There are places where home baking is readily available ~ all the traditional Scottish baking, pancakes, scones, fruit loaves etc. I bake scones to take on my tours for afternoon tea, and my friend’s mum bakes Shearers’ cake ~ it is delicious!
Europe Travel: What do you enjoy most about running a tour company?
Rachel MacNeill: I meet such interesting people. The kinds of people who are attracted to a tour company called WILD AND MAGIC ISLAY, are invariably a bit wild and magic themselves! I like that I can take people out for picnics up a hill, or make a fire on the beach, I am having a great day out myself ~ and it is part of my job! I also enjoy very much introducing people to whisky. When they say to me ‘I don’t like whisky’ I say ~ ‘you just haven’t tasted the one you like yet’. I can gauge from spending time with the guests which whisky to suggest they try ~ and usually I suggest one that they like.
I also like organizing the tours ~ I am great at organizing, I don’t find it to be work. I like making the best tour for the character of the person in the time they have available.
I don’t run Wild and Magic Islay or Whisky for Girls for money. Obviously, I have to make money to live, but I don’t give less just to make more money. What would be the point? The whole point of the company is to be eco-friendly. Wild and Magic Islay is a way of life, not a money making exercise.
Europe Travel: - What is your favorite whisky?
Rachel MacNeill: This is a very hard question to answer as I have many favorites! It depends on your mood, what company you are with, what time of year ~ are you inside or out? I like Laphroaig 10 yo ~ a great dram to have outside at a fire on the beach, An Turas Mor from Bruichladdich after dinner, and Bunnahabhain 18 yo when sitting in the garden with friends, to name but a few. I like whiskies from Speyside and other parts of Scotland too ~ a fine, light Auchentoshan or a Glenfarclas 15 yo. It is very difficult to choose a favorite ~ I love them all!!