Skip to main page content (AccessKey S)
Port Wemyss is located at the western tip of Rhinns of Islay, the peninsula that wraps around the north side of Loch Indaal as it takes its huge bite out of the west side of the island. It is located immediately to the south of its near (and better known) neighbour, Portnahaven, and looks out across the narrow strip of water that separates Islay from the offshore island of Orsay, whose lighthouse seems to dominate views of and from the village.
Port Wemyss and Portnahaven are very much at the end of the road in this northern part of Islay. Getting to them takes a little more effort that does getting to most places on the island. The last seven miles from Port Charlotte are along single track roads, though good quality ones. The effort is well worth it, because what you find when you arrive in Port Wemyss is a sublimely attractive settlement in an exceptional coastal location.
Port Wemyss was originally called Wemysshaven, and was founded in 1832. Its founder was Walter Frederick Campbell of Islay. He had founded Port Ellen in 1821 and named it after his first wife; and Port Charlotte in 1828 and named it after his mother. The origins of the name "Wemysshaven" are a little less obvious, until you know that Campbell's father in law was the 8th Earl of Wemyss.
Port Wemyss was built to rehouse some of the people Campbell was clearing from inland areas of the island and provide them with a chance to develop new skills as fishermen. Many chose emigration instead. The new settlement was on the site of an earlier village called Luib, of which little or nothing now remains. As a fishing port, Port Wemyss is a little odd, in that it stands back from and above the coastline: presumably this was to allow crofts to be developed on the most fertile land above the shore. There was an earlier harbour, now disused, but the existing pier on the shore here looks rather exposed when compared with the much greater shelter afforded by the inlet at Portnahaven.
Today it is possible to stroll along the shore below Port Wemyss following the well kept Ràthas nan Lasgairean, or "path of the fishermen". This provides an excellent introduction to some of the abundant wildlife in the area.
Port Wemyss is unusual in that it never had its own church. Instead, residents would walk the few hundred yards to Portnahaven Parish Church. This "T" plan church comes with two main doors, and it is said that residents of Port Wemyss used one while residents of Portnahaven used the other.
The Rhinns of Islay Lighthouse on the island of Orsay was built by Robert Stevenson in 1825 at a cost of some £9,000. It stands 29m high and for much of its life served as home for four weeks at a time to a Principal Lightkeeper and two Assistants. The light was automated in 1998 and since then has been monitored by the Northern Lighthouse Board from their headquarters in Edinburgh. The NLB also own Orsay itself, which as well as the lighthouse and ancillary buildings is home to a ruined chapel and the site of an earlier fishing settlement dating back to the 1300s.