Isle of Colonsay - just a wee Hebridean gem
Colonsay is one of the most attractive of the Inner Hebrides, with much more than just choughs and corncrakes. One of our favourite Scottish islands.
Colonsay is one of the most beguiling of the Hebrides, a small Scottish island with a big appeal for lovers of the outdoors.
Drive down the hill towards the douce bed-and breakfasts of Oban and the bay will catch your eye. Offshore, the island of Kerrera - my least favourite island - forms a humpy green breakwater and protects Oban's piers from the south-westerlies. Close at hand, the breezy crescent of the town's promenade is lined with more hotels, as well as shops selling everything from Scottish designer jewellery to organic oatcakes. These days, Oban has plenty to offer with a good restaurant choice in particular.
For many, this is the end of the drive, or the rail journey. But Oban should be a beginning, for it is the gateway to the Inner Hebrides and the island of Colonsay. Out beyond Kerrera, the hills of the island of Mull are conspicuous, but the very best is out of sight, south-westwards down the sea-lanes once ploughed by the galleys of the Lords of the Isles in the Middle Ages.
The Caledonian Macbrayne ferry takes just over two hours to reach the island of Colonsay. (Five sailings a week in the summer season from Oban plus there is one ferry a week from Kennacraig on the mainland, via Port Askaig on Islay.) On a day of even average visibility, the island views on the way are outstanding. Clear of Kerrera, Mull stretches far westwards, its water-fluted cliffs all blocks and battleship prows. (That phrase is so close to being blue-pencilled.) On the landward side, beyond Seil and the rough dome of uninhabited Scarba, Jura is humped and sinuous, back-lit silver-grey. (Look, get an editorial grip will ya?) Finally, when the rock-twisted Garvellachs, the Isles of the Sea, drop away, Colonsay itself takes shape out of the glittering sea, dead ahead. It is indeed a poetic voyage and perhaps a plate of Caledonian MacBrayne’s finest fish and chips en route is needed as a reminder that this is no luxury cruise, but a vital island lifeline. About 120 residents depend on the CalMac ferries for supplies, livestock movements, mail – and visitors.
Hebridean Air also flies from Oban to Colonsay but we like the ferry journey as it feels an essential part of this island adventure.
Colonsay is barely eight miles (13km) long. Beyond its western shores lies Canada, give or take a couple of lighthouses. Seen from the boat, the island gives little away on first impression. Grey rock rubs through a threadbare moorland. Then, as the ferry’s bow-thrusters churn and edge it deftly to Scalasaig pier, a bright green field can be seen rolling up to the island’s only hotel – which is a cool and stylish affair. Meanwhile, the post office van is down from the only store, and in the general bustle is the hotel courtesy luggage car, a tractor possibly driven by a sheepdog, boxes of oysters blowing bubbles while awaiting loading – and an assortment of green wellies in which stalk earnest ornithologists.
The boat’s arrival is an important island event. Some visitors take their cars, as there are at least 14 miles of public road. Others visitors can hire bikes. In addition to the hotel, there are a few guest houses, as well as a backpackers hostel. There is also a surprising amount of self-catering accommodation – mainly estate cottages belonging the Strathcona family for over 100 years.
The grounds of Colonsay House, a rambling, pink mansion, with their tender rhododendrons, thickets of rampant escallonia and many species much rarer, are open to the public on Wednesdays and Friday afternoons plus there is a nice cafe here too. The house is half-hidden in woodlands in the island’s sheltered interior. There are also five apartments located in a south facing wing available to rent.
Even to the explorer on foot, the island soon reveals itself to be much more than rocky moors on the Atlantic edge. The farms raise sheep and cattle, the rabbit-cropped machair is shadowed by hunting buzzards, while wild goats browse round the edges of protected patches of unusual Hebridean natural woodlands of oak, hazel and willow. The habitat list also includes gleaming sandy beaches and extensive tidal sandflats as well as impressive sea-cliffs.
The hotel is a social centre. In the public bar you can chat to locals. There are also ceilidhs in the village hall every Saturday during the main season where visitors are both welcomed and encouraged to contribute to the entertainment.
The island also hosts a range of popular events such as The Festival of Spring and also a music festival in the autumn, plus a whole lot more.
With its diverse habitats in a small area, the isle of Colonsay is a birdy sort of place. This is further helped by very little disturbance by you or me. Most of the dogs work for a living and there are no caravan sites, waterskiers, juke boxes, tartan dolly shops, or off-road bikers.
There are, however, choughs. You may arrive in the Isle of Colonsay in ignorance of them. By the time you leave, you will be an expert. Choughs are very rare crows. (They are pronounced ‘chuffs’ and were written that way by my wife until I noticed. Apologies to the birdy folk.) From a distance, they look black, in common with most of their corvid cousins. If you observe choughs closely as they poke about for grubs and gollachs in a cow-pat, you may glimpse their bright red beaks and feet. In flight they look like square and raggy-winged jet-black jackdaws. They are extremely scarce in Scotland, with small colonies only on a few of the Inner Hebrides, where their survival, research shows, seems to be dependent on the over-wintering of cattle outside.
Choughs are only one from 150 birds which turn up on Colonsay. The list also includes the odd golden eagle or the rare Isle of Colonsay corncrake. The island is also particularly good for birds in the off-season, when the barnacle and white-fronted geese visit. (This last species is the one described many years ago in an Argyll local paper, thanks to a crackly phone line and a deaf copy-taker, as Y-fronted geese!) Boat trips around the Isle of Colonsay are now also available on a Tuesday. This two hour marine trip takes you to see seabirds on the cliffs as well as possibly some marine wildlife.
Apart from the wildlife attractions of the birds, goats, seal and otters, the Isle of Colonsay is also most attractive for its sense of community. Unlike other parts of the west of Scotland, the island was never forcibly cleared by greedy landlords, though emigration and depopulation has taken place. Of the 120 inhabitants, several families go back many generations.
Colonsay also attracts folk with an interest in early history. There are duns (early hill forts), burial cairns, standing stones and other prehistoric paraphernalia littering the island, while the most spectacular survivor from the past can be seen on Oronsay. This is, strictly speaking, a separate island, separated from the isle of Colonsay at low water by a mile of sandflats, called the Strand, a splashy cockle-strewn haunt of plover and visitors glancing at their watches. The tide comes up to your neck – but only very slowly – if you mis-time your visit.
Folk bring their wellies because of Oronsay Priory. This abandoned Augustinian House was founded in the second quarter of the 14th century by John, Lord of the Isles. (The Lords of the Isles were powerful Gaelic ‘princes’ of the west Highlands, only nominally under the control of the Scottish kings.) The surviving complex shows a series of building phases between 14th-16th centuries. The grave slabs, with their coldly-carved grey warriors, and the magnificent early 16th-century cross are well worth a mile of soggy sand and the same of dubby road, unless your wellies leak a lot.
Finally, if you tire of the gloriously unstructured outdoors (and if you do, you certainly chose the wrong island), then you can try a round of golf. However, a rabbit-hole-in-one does not count and it may be wise to agree beforehand that the winner is the one who loses least balls. Perhaps the sheep eat them. Even golf takes on an island dimension here.
Or you could stroll along to the Colonsay Brewery. It claims to be the smallest island in the world with its own brewery and they welcome visitors. Opening hours depend on the stage of production but there is someone about most days.
Make sure you stay long enough to see at least one ferry come and go. You will feel wonderfully superior to the harried, tight-schedule tourist who only manages a few hours on a peak-season day trip. Unspoilt is an overworked word, but certainly Colonsay gives the impression that it has some way to go before it loses its identity in the trammels of tourism.
The island’s oysters add a new dimension to any previously known definition of fresh seafood. The Isle of Colonsay Wildflower Honey has a unique flavour as it is made from wildflower nectar including the strong aromatic oils of the wild thyme that grows on the machair. It is made by the pure bred native black bee of Colonsay. The local produce for the hotel also includes a long growing season in its vegetable garden. This is because of the Gulf Stream, which brings its mildness to the aid of brochure copywriters the length of the western Scottish seaboard. Frost on Colonsay is quite rare. And with the highest point on the island only 450 feet, the rain clouds usually sail straight over to cling to the big Highland hills, miles away to the east.
Generations of guide-book and brochure writers have referred to Colonsay, as 'the jewel of the Hebrides'. Just this once - that's fair enough.
Try some other Scottish islands.