There is probably no such thing as two similar islands but a look on the map shows striking similarities between Gigha and Colonsay, which are of course coincidental. One could say that Colonsay is Gigha’s bigger brother. Colonsay is about twice the size of Gigha, Colonsay also has an island south of the main island, in Colonsay’s case called Oronsay, and the shape doesn’t differ that much either. There are probably much more similarities but let’s stick to describing Colonsay itself.
Colonsay is located around eight miles from Islay’s north coast and the same distance from the west coast of Jura. Fifteen miles to the north is Mull and to the north west are the Treshnish Isles, Iona and Tiree. And to the west Dubh Artach or black rock, a remote skerry of basalt rock with a lighthouse where waves have been measured up to 28 metres. Several men served this lighthouse until it was automated in 1971. Further west is nothing but Canada and a whole lot of weather.
Although the island is located close to it’s bigger neighbours it can be a rather remote island, especially in the winter. There is a daily ferry connection with Oban, on Wednesday and Saturday to Kennacraig but the service takes place over a rather unsheltered part of the west coast of Scotland and is therefore more liable to disruptions than other ferry services to nearby islands.
Hebridean Air Services runs an inter island service between Oban and Colonsay with connecting flights on some days to Islay, Coll and Tiree. For more info and schedules visit this link.
Colonsay is inhabited by around 135 people. Oronsay to the south is separated from Colonsay by The Strand which can be walked across when the tide is out, is inhabited as well by the RSPB wardens and a few other people. Both islands had a much larger population earlier and in the late 1800s the combined islands had a population of almost 400! There is a sanctuary cross made of stones halfway The Strand to Colonsay; any Colonsay fugitive who reached the cross was immune from punishment provided he stayed on Oronsay for a year and a day! The original cross is no longer there.
Colonsay Kiloran Bay
Colonsay has a school, one hotel, two churches, a shop and post office, a tea shop, a microbrewery and a 18 hole golf course. Scalasaig is the main settlement on the Isle of Colonsay and home to the only (ferry)port on the island. Colonsay offers magnificent views towards the neighbouring islands when the weather is clear and Colonsay is mainly known for its beautiful unspoilt nature, wildlife, tranquility, dramatic cliffs and lovely (sheltered) remote beaches. The island’s economy depends on crofting, farming, some fishing and tourism. Colonsay Estate owns several cottages scattered all over the island.
The unsheltered west coast of both Colonsay and Oronsay face the full force of the Atlantic Ocean and as a result the coastline is deeply indented with numerous rocks and reefs backed by Machair which is a fertile low-lying grassy plain typically found on the islands of western Scotland. The central part of the island and specially the Kiloran valley, is much more sheltered offering an almost sub tropical climate in which plants and trees thrive. It was in this valley where Malcolm MacNeil built Colonsay House in 1722 and the word goes he used stones from an earlier church or abbey.
Due to the sheltered valley Colonsay is also interesting from a botanical point of view with species like Sea Samphire and Marsh Helleborine and the very rare Orchis, Spiranthes Romanzoffiana. Colonsay has, possibly, the greatest variety of flora in the Hebrides, some five hundred species. Kiloran Bay in the north-west of the island is well known and offers a beautiful sandy beach which can be compared with Islay’s Machir Bay. The highest peak on Colonsay is the Carn an Eoin (143m), locally referred to as one of the 22 MacPhie’s. A MacPhie is the Colonsay equivalent of a Munro and has to exceed 300ft (91.46m). Furthermore Colonsay House and woodland gardens are worth visiting. The woodland garden is considered to be one of the finest rhododendron gardens in Scotland and can be visited on Wednesdays in the summer season.
Like many other islands in the Southern Hebrides human activity on Colonsay dates back to around 7,000 bc. Iron age forts and duns are the witnesses, or better remains, of these early inhabitants. When Malcolm MacNeil of Knapdale acquired the islands of Colonsay and Oronsay from the Campbells in 1700 the inhabitants were lucky. Due to the later laird, John MacNeil, and his liberal nature many people escaped the clearances in the 19th century although many people had left the island voluntarily. Colonsay Estate is now in the ownership of the Strathcona family for over 100 years. The current owner is Alex Howard, who lives on Colonsay with his wife and family.
Another interesting historical feature is the priory on Oronsay from which much is still standing today. Oronsay priory was 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.
Colonsay Loch Fada
Colonsay is also interesting from a wildlife point of view due to its many habitats and that for two relatively small islands. During the year over a hundred different birds can be spotted including Chouch and, when you are really lucky, the secretive Corncrake that likes to hide between the nettles and higher grasses. If not to be seen, you can certainly hear the Corncrake during the evening hours and at night, it has a very distinctive rasping call. Buzzards are quite common and the island also has a pair of breeding Golden Eagles. Otters live on Colonsay as well and even wild goats frequent the eastern coastline. The islands south of Oronsay are home to several seal colonies and one of the small islands, Eilean nan Ron (Seal Island) is a nature reserve.
Colonsay bookshop – House of Lochar
Colonsay is served by the ferries of Caledonian MacBrayne from Oban. They sail three times a week in the winter and six times in the summer. On Wednesdays in the summer there is a morning ferry from Islay (Port Askaig) to Colonsay and Oban and she returns later in the afternoon. Visitors of Islay frequently use this ferry to visit Colonsay, it gives them six hours to discover the island. There is also a scheduled air service that operates twice daily, Tuesdays and Thursdays, from Connel (by Oban). This service is operated by Highland Airways and in addition there is a sea-plane service operated by Loch Lomond Sea Planes.
Colonsay Community & Local Websites. Tourist Information:
Colonsay Pictures – A Gallery with Colonsay Pictures
www.colonsay.org.uk – Colonsay Community website
www.colonsayestate.co.uk – Colonsay Estate, includes accommodation
www.visitscottishheartlands.com – Tourist Information for Argyll