Colonsay and Oronsay: a tale of two Scottish islands

It’s still possible to find untouched Edens in Britain. Fergus Collins visits a pair of islands on western Scotland’s Celtic fringe, where wildlife far outnumbers people.

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Explore Colonsay and Oronsay Islands article spread

It’s still possible to find untouched Edens in Britain. Fergus Collins visits a pair of islands on western Scotland’s Celtic fringe, where wildlife far outnumbers people.

 

Some people will tell you that there is no wilderness left in Britain. That there’s nowhere humans haven’t ‘managed’ at some stage. They say that for true wilderness you need to go abroad, perhaps even to Antarctica.

But there are places in Britain where humans have never settled. Locations where people have been driven back by nature, their villages reclaimed by the heather and bracken.

Islands like Colonsay and its smaller twin, Oronsay, outliers of the western fringe of the Scottish mainland.
 

Wild shores

A sliver of land only 15km long, Colonsay is an adventurous little island, stuck out on a limb with no large neighbours to shelter it from the full force of the Atlantic. Its nearest big brothers are Islay and Jura to the south, and Mull to the north.

On a clear day, you can see the coast of Donegal far to the southwest, but it would have to be a very clear day indeed to see Canada, the next stop if you were to head due west.

Approaching the island by boat from the port of Oban, which bills itself as the ‘Gateway to the Isles’, you follow a finger of water called the Firth of Lorn. The land drops away on either side, leaving an unpromising craggy lump ahead. As you get closer, some of the rocks slowly materialise into houses, gathered loosely together in the settlement of Scalasaig – Colonsay’s metropolis.
 

The welcome committee

On the way, use the ferry as a mobile hide – you’re bound to see eider ducks. In spring, the whitewashed male keeps close tabs on his brown consort, a tubby destroyer escorting a merchant ship. Later in the year, eiders raft together, the males entering the eclipse stage when their plumage dulls.

You’ll spot guillemots, too, and their handsome cousins, black guillemots, with their red bills and white splashes on each flank.

Don’t be put off by the rocky welcome. Though the island has a hard exterior of crags and cliffs, there is a soft centre of fertile farmland, jewelled lochs, machair grassland and sheltered gardens. The contrasts are breathtaking and unexpected for such a small speck of land.
 

Off the beaten track

The best way to explore these treasures is on foot. Even better, take a guide.

Kevin Byrne leads walking tours for small groups and likes nothing better than to range over the wilder regions of the eastern part of the island. A local historian and naturalist, he is one of the island’s mainstays, doubling as the local postman, school-bus driver and ferryman.

Kevin doesn’t follow paths, except ones that he made himself on earlier walks, and he’ll soon lose you deep in the heather – though that’s not a bad place to be lost in late summer when it’s like wading through a purple lake. Very soon, you’ll forget about the rest of civilisation, as Kevin relates snippets of local history in his gentle burr.
 

The call of the moors

You’ll scatter small brown meadow pipits everywhere you walk. Unfairly dismissed as ‘cannon fodder’ for the island’s peregrines and merlins, they have a character all their own, and their ‘seep-seep’ calls provide the essential soundtrack to the moor.

If you doubted the existence of wilderness in the UK, look across the water towards the stern, western flanks of Jura. Nobody lives there, nobody ever has. Only a few men with rifles stalk its glens, and fleeting visitors are largely at the mercy of a landscape guarded by forbidding cliffs.
 

Are you being watched?

Scan the skyline for the tell-tale V-shapes of horns on the horizon, or simply wait until you get the feeling of being watched. There are wild goats out there. Tall horns and a shaggy, chocolate-brown coat give them an air of substance. They are edgy beasts; proper wild animals.

Before long you’ll come to the ruins of settlements. Kevin will explain that some are only a few decades old, while others date back centuries, but often it’s hard to tell the difference as weather and vegetation soon reclaim the stones.

He even shows us a stone circle that doesn’t appear on the OS map, and jokes that he may never find it again. Or it might not be a joke, because he scratches his head and wonders where to walk next.

Later, Kevin will lead you into a mysterious woodland of gnarled oaks – A’ Choille Mhór – a remnant of the groves that swathed the island, to marvel at the lichens, galls and mosses. While here, Kevin will probably pull out a saw and start hacking at the rhododendrons that have seeded themselves, escapees from the gardens at Colonsay House.

 

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