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.
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.
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.
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.
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 !
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.
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.
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 !