A Visitor's Introduction to Colonsay
The island of Colonsay lies in the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. Fifteen miles to the north lies the island of Mull; the eastern and southern horizons are bounded by the islands of Jura and Islay; and to the south west, just visible from a high point on a clear day, is the coast of Donegal in Ireland. To the west lies the Atlantic, with only the Du Hirteach lighthouse standing between Colonsay and Canada. Together with its semi-detatched neighbour Oransay, it forms an island group roughly ten miles long and two miles wide.
With roughly 135 inhabitants and its nearest neighbouring community almost twenty miles distant, Colonsay constitutes one of the most remote communities in Britain. The island has a primary school (currently with three children and three pre-school starters), one hotel, a shop and post office, 2 cafes and a number of other seasonal enterprises. There is a resident doctor, two churches (one Church of Scotland and one Baptist) but no resident minister. It is served by ferry five times a week (in winter three times) from the mainland port of Oban and there is an additional summer service from Kennacraig via Islay.
Most visitors are attracted to Colonsay for its tranquility and unspoilt natural beauty. Although it is one of the smallest of the inhabited Hebridean islands, Colonsay offers the visitor a very wide variety of natural attractions in its varied habitats.
There are many beautiful sandy beaches, the largest and most famous of which is Kiloran Bay. This is a crescent of golden sand over a mile long where the Atlantic rollers can provide surf for the adventurous after a westerly wind. Other beaches have completely different characters and different attractions.. seabirds and seals .. rockpools and shells..an unbroken Atlantic horizon to the West or the distant coastlines of Jura and Islay to the East. For those prepared to take the plunge, the water everwhere is crystal clear, smooth as silk and at most times of the year icily invigorating.
The dramatic cliffs of the western coast of Colonsay are home to enormous colonies of seabirds, notably fulmars, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, shags and all types of gull. The beaches and rocky inlets support colonies of ringed plover, terns, oyster catchers and eiders amongst others. The wide range of natural habitats to be found on Colonsay is one of the chief reasons for the great variety of bird life that can be seen in this relatively small area. These include species, both common and rare, that favour moorland, woodland and farmland habitats, as well as the seabirds. For those with an interest in ornithology please visit our flora and fauna page.
There are also a number of seal colonies on offshore islands off Oransay and the south west coast of Colonsay. The seals are plentiful and curious about humans, so they are easily seen.
The otters are more shy, and although you may find their distinctive tracks in many places, you will probably have to persevere to see them.
More unusual inhabitants of the eastern coastline of Colonsay are the wild goats, reputedly the descendants of Spanish goats carried on an Armada vessel shipwrecked on Colonsay.
Colonsay and Oransay are also a rich source of interest for the plant lover. The woodland gardens surrounding Colonsay House contain an enormous variety of exotic rhododendrons as well as mimosa, eucalyptus and palm trees and many other small plants which benefit from the shelter of the trees and the mild climate. April, May and June are the best times to appreciate the woodland gardens. On Wednesdays during the summer the private formal gardens immediately surrounding Colonsay House are also opened to the public.
The hills, moorlands and shore also contribute their share of botanical interest and beauty at various times of the year. Rarities include the Sea Samphire and Marsh Helleborine and the very rare Orchis, Spiranthes Romanzoffiana which was first found at Uragaig on Colonsay in 1930. For the uninitiated there are the sights and smells of bluebells and primroses in spring; heath orchids, wild roses, honeysuckle and fucshia in the summer; and yellow irises and heather in the late summer. For those with a special interest in botany please visit the flora and fauna page.
Of course, birds and flowers are just the most obvious of attractions. If you have more specialised interests, visit the dedicated page on the National Biodiversity Network site and follow the links.
The raised beaches or machair are another of Colonsay's natural habitats. The sandy subsoil and grass close-cropped by sheep and by rabbits make this a natural habitat for a golf course. Colonsay's 18 hole golf course harks back to the very earliest golf courses that were ever created in Scotland, the home of golf. It takes advantage of the machair to provide a course with none of the environmental drawbacks of modern courses and few of the maintenance costs. The tee markers and greens are the only impositions which the course makes on the natural environment. Visiting golfers will have to adapt their normal putting style to the Colonsay greens, but 18 holes of golf on Colonsay's links will provide an experience that is as challenging or as relaxing as you want. Colonsay golf course is a members-only course but membership is open to all and probably one of the best deals in golf at £20.00 per year membership. Details of the how to join are available on the golf page.
Fishing of various kinds is also available for visitors. Several of the lochs contain brown trout, which will rise to the well placed fly. If you are interested in fresh water fishing on Colonsay you can join the Colonsay Fly Fishing Association for a nominal sum.
Sea fishing is also available of course, and while saithe is the most likely catch, mackerel and other varieties are regularly caught from the pier.
If your taste in seafood runs to the more exotic then you should definitely try Colonsay's home-bred oysters. You may also be able to buy prawns from the fishing boats which tie up at the pier regularly.
There is evidence of human activity on Colonsay going back to 7,000 B.C. and all over the island you can find evidence of Colonsay's long history ranging from the Iron Age forts and duns which still dominate the Colonsay skyline, to the abandoned village of Riasg Buidhe, which was inhabited up to 1918. There are several historical sources for those who wish to learn about Colonsay's history, all of which are stocked by the Colonsay Bookshop. We have also been given permission by the The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland to publish on this site the introduction to their definitive guide to all things archaeological on Colonsay and Oransay "Colonsay & Oronsay - An Inventory of the Monuments extracted from Argyll Volume 5".
Of all of the historical artefacts to be found on Colonsay and Oransay, the priory on Oransay is without doubt the most impressive. Local legend has it that Oransay was visited by Columba on his journey into exile from his native Ireland. On climbing Beinn Oransay on a clear day he discovered that he could still see the coast of Ireland so he sailed on, eventually founding the religious community on Iona.
While it would be nice to lay claim to a monastic site predating Iona, the magnificent priory on Oransay, much of which much is still standing today, was actually founded by the Augustinians in the early 14th century and became an important religious centre for the islands and Argyll over the next two hundred years. The ruins are well-preserved and there is a wonderful collection of carved gravestones.