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Issue 33 - Secret island escape

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 33
June 2007


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Secret island escape

Colonsay and Oronsay are two bleak but beautiful islands just south of Mull on Scotland's west coast. John Hannavy reports

It was an oasis of light against the darkening night sky – Caledonian MacBrayne’s ferry making an evening departure from Scalasaig Pier on the Hebridean island of Colonsay. Generating more electric light than all the houses on the island put together, the bright shape of the departing ship could still be seen long after the deep rumble of her engines had faded away.

On every other night, the intense blackness – so far away from heavily populated centres that no orange glow from sodium lamps is visible in the night sky – is something we rarely get to experience in these days of widespread light pollution.

Colonsay is a beautiful island, and despite being only two hours 20 minutes from Oban, seems wonderfully remote. Once the ferry sails away, taking the bustle of modern life with it, the much more gentle pace of life on the island engulfs you. In winter, the island is accessible only from Oban, but in summer an additional service links Colonsay with Islay and Kennacraig on Kintyre.

In summer the island’s population of a hundred or so – centred on Scalasaig, Kiloran and Kilchattan – is swelled by holidaymakers and day-trippers. Aday trip, however, does not offer anything like enough time to savour the delights of the place.

Standing on the beach near Kilchattan on the western side of the island, it was a sobering thought to know that, if you started swimming, the next land with which you would make contact would be Canada. Alarge number of Colonsay residents did make the journey to Canada’s Prince Edward Island in 1806 – by ship though, rather than swimming – in search of a new and easier life there.

Life on Colonsay can never have been easy, and in a storm you can easily see why, as the Atlantic Ocean thrashes the coast and huge waves pound the beach, in stark contrast to the benign seas which usually roll gently across the sands. Even today, in the hotel bar in Scalasaig, locals tell stories of storms forcing the cancellation of successive ferries, and of visitors being ‘trapped’ on the island for much longer than they had planned. I can think of worse places to be trapped… Beautiful beaches are a feature of Colonsay, and the spectacularly beautiful Kiloran Bay at the northern end of the island’s main road is one of the finest, perhaps the finest beach to be found anywhere in the Hebrides. The island is also a haven for unusual plants and wildlife – fuchsias grow wild and stonecrop flowers in clefts in the rocks along the west coast – and botanists record that this little island plays host to more than 600 plant species.

Wild goats can still be seen roaming the hills, descendents of animals washed ashore in 1588 at the time of the Spanish Armada. Apart from them, the animal population is predominantly made up of sheep, cattle and rabbits. Along the coast you might see otters, especially in the south of Colonsay, and you will be unlucky if you don’t see grey seals. But you will never find a snake, or a frog for that matter, as the island has none. The other thing it doesn’t have many of is roads, so a visit to Colonsay rewards willing walkers.

The landscape is dotted with traces of more populous times; the village of Raisg Buidhe was finally abandoned as recently as 1925, and both Colonsay and neighbouring Oronsay are peppered with evidence that the islands have been populated for millennia. Ancient standing stones are to be found at various locations, and assorted fortified structures, some early and others as late as the 17th century can only be found by the intrepid walker.

A star attraction is the Oronsay Priory, the ruins of Scotland’s most remote medieval priory on the island of Oronsay to the south of Colonsay. The priory is reached after a robust walk from the southern tip of Colonsay, across the Strand, a strip of sand which links the two islands at low tide – or almost links them, as when we were there, the sea never completely cleared the Strand. So, shoes in hand and camera bag on my back, we paddled part of the way – check tide times before setting out, as the water gets rather too deep for comfort when the tide comes in.

Once on Oronsay, a track leads the mile or so to the ruins, and on a summer’s day, after that long walk, there are plenty of grassy banks on which to collapse while eating a packed lunch.

The Priory of St Columba is a remarkable site, well preserved because it was too remote for the stones to be plundered for use in later buildings, and dates from the early years of the 14th century.

In this remote place, a group of Augustinian Canons lived and worked for 200 years. One of their priors, Colin, is also believed to have been the chief of the MacDuffie clan, and his huge cross dominates the priory site. Standing nearly 12 feet high, this late 15th century cross is one of the finest to be found anywhere in Scotland.