I was a car-free visitor to Islay twice before meeting Roddy and moving there for two years. Roddy has never owned a vehicle, and we did not have one for the two years we spent living on Islay together. Subsequently, we are well-versed in getting around Islay without a car!
You do not need a car on Islay; however, the bus timetable and routes are very limited, which will restrict which distilleries and other sights you can visit. Taxis and private tours/shuttles are a great alternative to access all parts of Islay if your budget allows it.
Whether you need a car on Islay depends on your available time, your budget, and what distilleries or other sights you'd like to visit.
These are the things you need to know if you want to visit Islay without a car:
Islay Buses Are Infrequent and Don't Run on Sundays
Islay Buses run intermittently from around 8 am to about 5 pm Monday to Saturday. The bus timetable centres around the school bus times (the school buses are public buses) which is why you will find fewer buses on Saturdays and during school holidays.
Frustratingly, buses don't run on Islay at all on a Sunday, so if you are planning your visit over the weekend, you will need to base yourself either near the distilleries you want to visit (and walk or cycle) or get a taxi. Keep this in mind if you intend to catch a plane or ferry on a Sunday and you don't have a car.
You also cannot rely on the Traveline Scotland website (which is normally a fabulous way of working out how to get around Scotland without a car) as they do not continually update their schedule. Use Argyll and Bute's (the local council's) website to access the Islay bus timetable online, as they are the ones who determine the bus schedule. The bus schedules are also posted at the bus stops around Islay, but it definitely pays to plan ahead! I have been caught out several times on a Saturday or during school holidays forgetting that the timetable has changed.
We have created the Islay Bus Map below to help you plan your journey and help you decide whether visiting Islay without a car is the best option for you. Use the map to identify the distilleries and areas you'd like to visit and determine whether you can get to them by bus or not.
Islay Bus Map
The two Islay bus routes (blue lines on the Islay Bus Map) are Route 450 - Portnahaven to Bowmore and Route 451 - Port Askaig to Ardbeg (via Bowmore and Port Ellen) - though sometimes this just stops in Port Ellen and doesn't go as far as Ardbeg. Yes, the Islay bus timetable is awful.
The bus routes intersect at Bridgend and Bowmore - you need to change buses at these locations if you wish to catch the bus along the other route. The bus drivers are generally incredibly helpful, and if you let them know where you're going, they will usually let you know when you need to get off the bus.
You should also make sure you check what time the next bus is on the return direction - if you miss the return bus you may have to wait quite a long time for the next one (if there is a next one!).
Distilleries easily reached by public transport (with a short walk from the bus stop) are as follows:
I have caught the Port Askaig bus (ask the bus driver to drop you off at the Persabus Farm road) and walked to Bunnahabhain before - it is 4 miles each way. On a sunny day, it is a stunning walk, and I highly recommend it, but the weather on Islay is very fickle, so be warned! If the weather is poor, it is a long walk with no protection from the elements.
There Aren't That Many Islay Taxis
Islay is an incredibly popular tourist destination serviced by a small community of people. It pays to be mindful that there aren't always enough services to cater to everyone on demand, including taxis.
Several taxi services are available on Islay, run by locals and often used by locals - around school times, some of the taxis operate as shuttles to and from the bus stops. It pays to book your taxi a day or two in advance.
The following taxi services operate on Islay - many can be hired for a day or half a day if you want a private tour of Islay:
Is there Uber on Islay?
There are vehicles on Islay registered with Uber but do not expect to get an Uber 'on demand' - anyone registered as Uber is probably also one of the Islay taxi drivers. If you're struggling to get a taxi, you will likely find it hard to get an Uber. Also, the phone signal in Islay can be poor, so you may not have the ability to order an Uber (or a taxi) at the exact location you want to be picked up. As with the taxis, try and book your Uber pick-up well ahead of the time you want.
You Might Want To Join A Small Group Tour
If it all seems too hard, why not join a Rabbie's Whisky Tour? Rabbies are a regular visitor to Islay and offer small group guided tours departing from Edinburgh, London and Manchester.
Small shuttle bus from Edinburgh to Islay to visit Bowmore Distillery, Ardnahoe Distillery and Kilchoman Distillery (day 2) and Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin (day 3), then home again via Oban and the Oban Distillery.
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An epic 8-day whisky adventure from England to Scotland - departing London (train to Penrith), head north (shuttle bus) via the Lakes District National Park, Edinburgh and Oban before spending 3 nights on Islay for a trip around Bowmore Distillery, Ardnahoe Distillery and Kilchoman Distillery and Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin before finishing up in Edinburgh (see our Edinburgh Distillery Guide).
Islay Has Some Fantastic Walking and Cycle Paths
There are two purpose built walking/cycle paths on Islay. The rest of the island tends to have footpaths only in the bigger towns, and walking between towns generally means sharing the narrow roads with cars and lorries. There are dedicated paths between the following locations:
If you are a keen cyclist, then road riding is popular on Islay and bikes are available to hire in Port Ellen and Bowmore:
Many Restaurants and Cafes are Closed Monday (or Close Early or Unexpectedly)
Other than not being unable to visit all the distilleries or all the scenic locations easily, the other disadvantage/thing to note if you don't have a car on Islay is the availability of food services. Many restaurants are not open on Monday, and most of the local convenience stores (e.g. Spar Port Charlotte, Mini Mart Port Askaig) close around 5 pm (they usually also close around noon for lunch). You either need to make sure you have brought food to cook at your accommodation or stay in one of the bigger towns (Bowmore or Port Ellen) where you can walk to more options (or access to the CoOp). You often won't find anywhere open for breakfast unless you're staying at a Bed and Breakfast or Hotel, so make sure you have a backup plan as, without a car, you cant easily find somewhere else to eat, as, of course, the buses don't run after 5 pm.
Islay Maps and Photographic Prints
Whisky Gifts, Wall Art and Man Cave Decor. Made By Whisky Lovers For Whisky Lovers