Leaving Oban on the CalMac ferry

Leaving Oban on the CalMac ferry

Colonsay is one of Scotland’s lesser-known islands, just eight by three miles and with a population (2011) of 144.  Until recently I hadn’t visited but given the positive recomendations by other visits I decided to add it to my 14 for 2014 list at the beginning of the year.

My Mum and I took the CalMac ferry on a glorious day from Oban, taking a course through the Sound of Mull to Colonsay.  At least it was a glorious day until we arrived in Oban … and this is when the clouds set in.  There was a bit of swell on the sea and the captain told us he was putting the stabilisers on (whatever they are) but given I’m not a natural sailor, I lay down and slept for much of the journey.

We arrived in Colonsay to light rain – and unfortunately that is how it stayed until the moment we left !

Much of the north end of the island and key facilities are owned by the Colonsay Estate.  We were staying in the Backpacker’s Lodge (in the grounds of Colonsay House), but the Estate also own a number of self-catering properties, the island’s hotel and probably much more besides.  We also discovered that in a population of 144, as is often the case in the Highlands and Islands, it’s a close-knit community.  The harbour master is also the taxi driver … and a key member of the Community Council … and the editor of the island’s newsletter … and most likely a number of other roles of which I’m unaware.

The Backpacker’s Lodge is a comfortable hostel comprising a main house and a slightly less plush set of outbuildings.  It was from there we set out the next morning to walk through the luscious grounds of Colonsay House to the island’s top attraction, Kiloran Bay.  The woodland gardens are host to an exotic array of large rhodedendrons, eucalyptus and palm trees and well worth a visit if you happen to be there on a Wednesday.  As we were there we had to be content with a walk around the outer gardens which was carpeted with wild garlic and bluebells.

 

Track towards Colonsay House

Track towards Colonsay House

 

Wild garlic

Wild garlic

 

Bluebells in Colonsay House gardens

Bluebells in Colonsay House gardens

It was only a short thirty minute walk to Kiloran Bay, a glorious sweep of yellow sand with the island’s highest point, Carnan Eoin, at the north end.  At 143 metres it’s hardly worth a hillwalker getting out of bed for but it does – on a clear day – give wonderful views out towards Mull, Jura and the other islands of the Inner Hebrides.  However, for really keen hillwalkers there is the challenge of  bagging the “MacPhies”,  the 22 small hills over 300 feet in height, involving a 20 mile continuous walk (the record is currenlty 3 hours 56 minutes !).  For the most part, Colonsay consists of undulating grass and moorland with sea views never far away.

Kiloran Bay on a drizzly day

Kiloran Bay on a drizzly day

 

View of Kiloran Bay from Carnon Eoin

View of Kiloran Bay from Carnan Eoin

From the top of Carnan Eoin there’s a fantastic view of Kiloran Bay with its yellow sand.  To the north there’s a sculpture of a whale, gradually being in-filled by rocks.  You can just make out the outline in the picture below.

The Whale

The Whale

 

Otter tracks on the beach at Kiloran Bay

Otter tracks on the beach at Kiloran Bay

We were excited to see otter tracks leading from the dunes to the sea.  It was a drizzly day with a dark sky and the waves were crashing into the Bay.

Kiloran Bay, Colonsay

Kiloran Bay, Colonsay

At the south end of the island is a sand causeway, passable at low tide, to the adjoining island of Oransay.  Oransay is an RSPB bird reserve and a popular draw for visitors.  There is one inhabited farm and besides visitors on foot a small number of vehicles, including the Post Office 4×4, also make the journey regularly.

To get there you have around three hours to walk across the wet sand (the deepest it gets is ankle deep), tour the island and then return before the tide comes in.  (You can find tide tables in Colonsay General Store, in the hotel and the Backpacker’s Lodge).  On a warm day, crossing in bare feet might be preferable but on a cool, wet day I can tell you that either wellies or crocs are advisable.  I wore the latter (the kind with a heel).  It was only when I got to the other side (a 30 minute walk) did I discover that I’d rubbed the skin off both heels – and so my advice would be to wear socks with your crocs.  Not fashionable in the least but very practical !

The Strand, between Colonsay and Oransay

The Strand, between Colonsay and Oransay

Besides the bird reserve the main reason for visiting Oransay of course is to see the 14th Century priory.  Dedicated to St Columba, the monastery was established in 1353 and operated at least until 1560, the date of the Reformation.  Today it is surprisingly well preserved.  You can walk around the priory buildings and also see very well preserved carved gravestones which illustrate the particular style of carving used by the 14th and 15th century stonecarvers.  Only one other visitor was there on the day I visited and I found it fascinating to see the intricate carvings that had lasted over 600 years.

Entrance to Oransay Priory

Entrance to Oransay Priory

 

Oransay Cross

Oransay Cross

 

Oransay Priory

Oransay Priory

Grave stones at Oransay Priory

Grave stones at Oransay Priory

Grave stone at Oransay

Grave stone at Oransay

Grave stone carving, Oransay

Grave stone carving, Oransay

Oransay is a very flat island that only just rises above 20 metres above sea level.  Consequently, the surrounding beaches provide an attractve foreground looking directly out to the Paps of Jura, around 15 miles across the sea.  Today, however, Jura’s hills were only murkly poking up in the distance, but the photos below give a sense of the pristine white sands and the big, big sky.

Beach at Oransay - Big sky !

Beach at Oransay – Big sky !

Landscape from Oransay, looking towards Jura

Landscape from Oransay, looking towards Jura

 

The Paps of Jura from Oransay

The Paps of Jura from Oransay

As the weather meant that longer walks off the beaten track weren’t an attractive option we made good use of the island’s other facilities, going to the Baptist Church on Sunday morning, eating at The Pantry and the Colonsay Hotel, visiting the bookshop, general store and small visitor centre.  The Hotel in particular is a comfortable haven, with soft sofas, log fires, a cosy bar and good food.

Most of the island’s facilities are Scalasaig on the east coast and it’s only a short walk between the hotel, Church of Scotland, shop, Pantry and ferry port.  There is an airport with a service operated by Hebridean Air Services just off the island’s road, which loops the island with a couple of spurs to the north and south ends respectively.  Given its size it’s ideal for cycling.

We left on the Sunday evening ferry just as blue skies began to appear.  Just our luck … we’ll need to return !

Colonsay's bustling transport hub

Colonsay’s bustling transport hub

 

The CalMac ferry arriving ... and some disinterested sheep

The CalMac ferry arriving … and some disinterested sheep

 

8 Comments on “14 for 2014 #3 – Visit the Island of Colonsay

  1. What a lovely post, and your photos are stunning! We visited Colonsay many years ago, and I remember the beauty of Kiloran beach, deserted even on a bank holiday. I think we saw otter tracks there, too. I didn’t make it across to Oransay, and I really wish I had, especially having seen your pics. I would really love to see the Priory!

    • Thanks ! Yes, in spite of the weather we found Colonsay a lovely island and lots to see and do. The beaches, particularly Kiloran Bay, are stunning and there are some good walks. We met a number of people who were island hopping, and Colonsay is easily combined with Islay and Jura.

  2. Marvellous thanks! One of the best posts I’ve seen. Have been itching to get there (and especially Oronosay) and finally we have booked our trip. One night at the pub, and a day and a half exploring (after a week in Islay). Can’t wait. Pretty exciting for 2 Aussies on the other side of the world.

    • Great – and thanks ! The hotel’s very comfortable and a good base for seeing the island. Next time I’d either go up-market and enjoy the luxury if the hotel or go downmarket and wild camp in my tent at Kiloran Bay. I’m sure you’ll have a great time.

  3. Lovely post. I particularly enjoyed your ‘we had to be content with … the wild garlic and bluebells” ha! One day, I hope to make it to this island, as well as Islay, subject of one of my favorite songs, Westering Home 🙂

    • Thank you. Yes, even on a damp and overcast day there was much to see in the woodlands around Colonsay House. The path beyond the gate leads to the inner gardens (only open on a Wednesday and Friday). I like that photo … it conjures up a sense of a secret garden beyond. You’ll need to visit when it’s open to find out !

  4. Pingback: Highlights of my blogging year 2014 | Wild about Scotland

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: