Exploring Scotland’s Five Scotch Whisky Regions

Scotch Whisky Regulations & Distilleries in Scotland

The Scotch Whisky Regulations (SWR) 2009 set out, among other things, to regulate how Scotch Whisky should be labelled, packaged and advertised. 

The five Scotch Whisky Regions defined by the SWR, are: Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Islay and Campbeltown.

Location

  • The line separating the Highland and Lowland Whisky Regions runs (in broad terms) from Greenock in the west of Scotland to Dundee in the east.
  • The Speyside Whisky Region lies within the Highland Region in the north east corner of Scotland.
  • The Islay Whisky Region comprises the Isle of Islay, the most southerly of Scotland’s Inner Hebridean islands.
  • The Campbeltown Whisky Region takes its name from the main town of the Kintyre Peninsula in Argyll.

Regional whisky divisions, whatever the motivation behind them, are not a new idea. In 1784, for example, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger introduced the Wash Act, legislation that divided Scotland into Highland and Lowland regions for whisky related tax and other purposes. It was one of a number of measures introduced to replenish government coffers following the crippling cost of the American War of Independence.

Six Classic Malts of Scotland

More recently some distilleries in Scotland have brought ranges to market which sought to demonstrate regional characteristics. In 1988 for example, United Distillers and Vintners, now part of Diageo, presented The Six Classic Malts of Scotland to best highlight the diversity and character of each of Scotland’s whisky regions.

However, in a time when new expressions are regularly appearing, the classification of whisky by region has become trickier. Perhaps then the current designations should be considered, not as a definition of flavour but simply an indication of place.

Highland Whisky Region

Highland (including the Northern and Western Isles) is one of the five Scotch Whisky Regions, recognised by the Scotch Whisky Association.

Exploring this beautiful part of the country reveals a history that stretches back to the Iron Age and beyond. Pictish warriors, Viking invaders and others who once roamed this part of Scotland have left their mark for the modern historical sleuth to investigate.

Scottish castles

It’s a region of mountains, rivers and lochs, a region with castles, cathedrals and crannogs to discover. And for sharp-eyed conservationists there are still remnants of the great Caledonian forest that once covered much of the land. 

Given the chance to cherry-pick from what is an impressive regional treasure chest, people might head for the Neolithic settlement on Orkney, Inveraray Castle on the shores of Loch Fyne or the beautiful, if somewhat difficult to get to, Sandwood Bay in the north west Highlands where stories of mermaids add to its allure. 

Top of some itineraries is Loch Ness – a firm favourite for visitors to Scotland. Sadly, we can’t promise an introduction to the world’s most celebrated monster.

Scotland’s most famous loch is part of the Thomas Telford inspired Caledonian Canal which follows the line of the Great Glen, a geological fault once filled with the cold waters of the retreating Ice Age. Running close to the canal is the long-distance footpath, the Great Glen Way, where keen eyes might catch a glimpse of pine martins, buzzards and golden eagles. Horticulturalists too need only step off the beaten track to see the orchids at Ach’an Todhair, the speckled wood butterflies in the north east of the glen or the rock plants that thrive in the deep gorge at the Falls of Foyers.

It is, thank goodness, a region where tradition remains strong – still a cherished part of modern living. From the unique sound of the bagpipe, fiddle and accordion at a Scottish ceilidh to the ever-popular Highland games which have their roots in much earlier times. 

Inveraray castle

Highland distilleries

Let’s not forget that one of the region’s most precious commodities is the ‘water of life’ – Scotch whisky – without the e, of course. 

Many of the best-known Highland distilleries regularly welcome visitors. Among them are Dalmore, Glenmorangie, Aberfeldy and Balblair distilleries, just four of what is an extensive list.

For the energetic Highland enthusiast there’s golf, fishing and off-roading, festivals of all flavours and just having fun. Almost anything is possible.

Inside Glenmorangie distillery

Lowland Whisky Region

Lowland is one of the five Scotch Whisky Regions, recognised by the Scotch Whisky Association.

The Lowland region covers great swathes of southern and central Scotland including the country’s two biggest cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Together they offer vibrant city life with fascinating galleries, museums, important buildings and outstanding cuisine – Scottish and international. They are wonderful places to explore, the nooks and crannies as well as the grand edifices.

St Andrews, the home of golf

St Andrews, the home of golf, is a small rather dignified Fife town, with added boisterousness during university term time. It lies around 30 miles from Scotland’s capital city. 

Its university, Scotland’s first and the third oldest in the English speaking world, was constituted by papal bull in 1413. The remains of its cathedral and castle are much older. Together they create a historic atmosphere that even permeates the bracing east coast air. 

Stirling Castle

Stirling which sits just inside the division between Lowland and Highland whisky regions is another of Scotland’s cities with a magnificent castle set within an ‘old town’ environment. Close to the city centre is the Bannockburn Memorial Experience, the site of Scotland’s most famous victory over its southern neighbour in 1314. Also nearby is the site of the Battle of Stirling Bridge where in 1297, William Wallace and Andrew Moray defeated an English army sent by Edward I. Like St Andrews the students from the University of Stirling bring a certain joie de vivre to the city.

The Scottish Borders is often overlooked on the well-worn tourist path between Edinburgh and the Highlands. The abbeys of Melrose, Kelso, Jedburgh and Dryburgh along with some magnificent houses – Traquair House, the oldest inhabited house in Scotland, and Abbotsford, once owned by Sir Walter Scott – add that ubiquitous dash of history that people coming to the region are so intrigued by.

History and heritage aside the region has some wonderful opportunities to enjoy Scotland’s cuisine in surroundings that range from magnificent to rustic. 

But adding to an already notable resume, the Scottish Borders has that much sought after commodity – wide open spaces and peace perfect peace.

With an impressive number of whisky distillery tours in the Lowlands, aficionados are well catered for. Among them are the new Holyrood Distillery in Edinburgh, Kingsbarns Distillery near St Andrews and the tongue twisting Auchentoshan Distillery in Clydebank only 18 miles or so from Loch Lomond’s bonnie banks. 

Holyrood Distillery

Speyside Whisky Region

Speyside is one of the five Scotch Whisky Regions, recognised by the Scotch Whisky Association.

Speyside, tucked comfortably between the Highlands, Aberdeenshire and the Cairngorms National Park, perhaps more than any other region, is synonymous with the production of whisky. With the greatest concentration of whisky distilleries in Scotland, it’s perhaps not surprising.

Speyside Malt Whisky Trail

Named after the River Spey which runs through its heart, Speyside has a range of whisky related attractions. The Malt Whisky Trail – the world’s only malt whisky trail – showcases a number of the region’s distilleries.

Also, on the trail is the Speyside Cooperage, testament to the importance of the cask in the whisky production process. Over a year the cooperage will build and repair thousands of casks, barrels, butts and puncheons. It’s a fascinating place to visit.

Among Speyside’s distilleries are some of the most respected names in the business – Aberlour, The Glenlivet and Glenfiddich

Glenlivet and Glenfiddich bottles on sale

With Charles Doig inspired pagoda roofs and traditional dunnage warehouses confidently cohabiting with state-of-the-art engineering, many of Speyside’s distilleries have a production process that might well be described as a juxtaposition of old and new methodology. 

Whether whisky expert or enthusiastic amateur, Speyside’s distilleries give their visitors much more than a mere whisky tour with tastings, nosings and a dram to finish proceedings. They offer a rare insight into the production process from the stillman, the cooper, the warehouseman and the malt master; who given time might lift the lid on stories of illicit stills and excise men who were once part of everyday life in this part of the world.

However, it would be rude to overlook some of the many other things that the region has to offer.

For history lovers there are some remaining signs of Pictish life and Jacobite skirmishes, with castles, cathedrals, museums and other heritage sites to explore. 

Some of Scotland’s best-known historical characters are associated with the region. Among them the unsavoury Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan better known as the Wolf of Badenoch and King Macbeth – the real King Macbeth – who ruled c. 1005-1057.

Islay Whisky Region

Islay is one of the five Scotch Whisky Regions, recognised by the Scotch Whisky Association.

Islay, a mere 25 miles from north to south and 20 miles from east to west punches well above its weight. Once part of the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata it’s the most southerly of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides and the site of a number of distilleries. Among them are Ardbeg, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain and Laphroaig. 

Archaeological discoveries have allowed a much deeper understanding of this beautiful place. Among the earliest finds is the 8th or early 9th century Kildalton Cross. The cross, similar in design to some of the great crosses carved on Iona is located in the Old Parish Church of Kildalton on the south-east of the island. This precious piece of history has a number of Christian scenes carved on the stone, including Cain killing Abel. 

Ardberg Distillery

Lords of the Isles

For centuries the island was the centre of power for the MacDonald Lords of the Isles, descendants of the fearsome Norse-Gaelic warrior Somerled. The Lords of the Isles ruled, independently of the Scottish Crown, over much of Scotland’s western seaboard until their demise in 1493.

MacMhuirich bards at Finlaggan

In what was essentially an oral society there are few written records of the time. One notable exception is the material relating to the close relationship between MacMhuirich bards (a bardic dynasty with an honoured place in Gaeldom) and MacDonald clan chiefs. For history buffs this is an utterly fascinating line of research to follow.

The Finlaggan Visitor Centre tells the story of that tumultuous time.

Today the annual Islay Festival of Malt and Music (Fèis Ìle), offers an Islay whisky tour, Gaelic poetry, traditional music with pipes and clarsach and the warmest of welcomes.

There are lots of other opportunities to have fun. Tourists coming to Islay can hire a bike and explore some of the remoter parts of the island, join a boat tour where if they’re lucky they might catch a glimpse of dolphins, porpoises and the occasional basking shark. In addition, golfing, pony trekking and fishing are always popular.

Campbeltown Whisky Region

Campbeltown is one of the five Scotch whisky regions recognised by the Scotch Whisky Association.

Campbeltown, originally known as Kinlochkilkerran, renamed in the 17th century by the Earl of Argyll the chief of the Clan Campbell, is the main town on the Kintyre Peninsula, in south west Scotland. The peninsula extends from the Mull of Kintyre in the south to Tarbert, a popular stopping point for yachting enthusiasts, in the north.

Whisky capital of the world

Once considered, “the whisky capital of the world” with over 30 distilleries, Campbeltown now has only three – Glen Scotia, Glengyle and the Springbank Distillery which suggests, in an interesting snippet on their website, that the earliest mention of Campbeltown whisky was as early as 1591.

Whisky Barrels at Springbank Distillery, Campeltown

There’s a great spirit (not just the whisky) in town with welcoming accommodation providers, restaurants, museums and golf courses. 

For walkers whose overriding desire is to be ‘far from the madding crowd’ (apologies to Thomas Hardy) the Kintyre Way, one of Scotland’s Great Trails is the perfect place. The trail’s coastal views are just beautiful. On the east side to Arran, Ailsa Craig and the Ayrshire coast. From the west, perhaps even better with views to Islay, Gigha, Jura and on clear days the coast of Northern Ireland.

Campbeltown Heritage Centre tells the story of the town’s association with Viking hordes, Covenanter armies and the early citizens of Dál Riata, ancient peoples who have left just the faintest reminders of their presence.

From a social perspective the centre also examines its links to not only whisky distilling but farming, fishing, coal mining and ship building.

Scottish food

Of course, visiting Scotland, whichever of its five whisky regions you choose, is about enjoyment, making new friends, visiting new places and trying new things. 

We’ve touched on regional history, sport and other things to see and do. But some topics deserve a holistic approach. World-renowned Scottish food for example – top quality beef, wild Scottish salmon, hand-dived scallops, haggis, black pudding, traditional cheeses, and the most delicious strawberries and raspberries.

While this small list of Scottish cuisine is a mere amuse bouche, Scotland’s a la carte menu has much more for the traditionalist and those with a spirit of adventure. It’s definitely something to write home about. 

Scottish Cuisine at Loch Linnhe, Kentallen

Raising a glass

With food goes drink. Of course, in Scotland that could mean many things, but on this occasion, it’s only fitting that we end with a dram.

Historian David Daiches writing in his book Scotch Whisky said:

“The proper drinking of Scotch whisky is more than indulgence; it’s a toast to a civilisation, a tribute to the continuity of culture, a manifesto of man’s determination to use the resources of nature to refresh mind and body and enjoy to the full the senses with which he has been endowed.”

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