COLONSAY AND ORONSAY
The two islands become one island for 3 hours at each low tide when they are linked by a sandy beach to form a single entity, not counting the dozen or so islets and fretted skerries around the southern and western end. Together, Colonsay and Oronsay are no more than 10 miles long, yet they have quite different characters.
Colonsay seems to have been occupied since time’s beginning. Flint tools and other Stone Age remains have been found, there are about a score of Pictish forts and half a dozen sets of standing stones, while beneath the sands of lovely Kiloran Bay was discovered, a century ago, the remains of a Viking warlord, together with his ship and his horse. The MacPhies held the island in historic times. Almost alone among the Hebrides it suffered no forced evictions during the Highland Clearances; therefore it lacks that sad, haunted quality that possesses so many of the others.
The family of the island’s present owner, Lord Strathcona, has during four generations improved the amenities of the place, and created subtropical gardens around Colonsay House. The house was built in 1722 from the stones of Kiloran Abbey; no trace remains today of the abbey, which is said to have been founded by St Columba.
The nearby Kiloran Bay is one of the island’s finest beaches. A long headland protects it from the full force of the Atlantic and makes bathing safe, though strong westerly winds can provide rollers for surfing. A natural rock pool is deep enough for diving, and the beach is backed by sand-dunes. Caves in the cliffs at either end of the bay contain evidence of human occupation stretching back 6,000 years.
Isles of moors and lochs, and whisky with the tang of peat
Oronsay belongs to the days of the saints. It is said that St Columba landed there on his way to Iona from Ireland in the middle of the 6th century. There was a monastery there in the 6th century, and the present priory dates from the 13th century. Within the still substantial ruins there is a beautiful Celtic cross and a high altar, in which are placed the human bones that occasionally come to the surface in the ancient burial ground. The graveyard, with its stone slabs bearing the carved portraits of warriors and priests, is almost certainly overcrowded, since until the Reformation Oronsay was considered to be the holiest ground in Scotland after Iona. The nearby farm buildings are built of stone quarried from the priory.
Much of Jura is a boggy desert, while Islay, where the Lords of the Isles harboured their war-galleys, sparkles with white farms and the pagoda-like vents of distillery drying rooms. Colonsay, under the influence of the North Atlantic Drift, has subtropical gardens and evidence that people have lived there since the Stone Age. Oronsay is holy ground, a calm and lovely island that in the Middle Ages was a place of pilgrimage and sanctuary.
In the middle of The Strand, the sandy stretch between the two islands, there used to be a cross; any fugitive from Colonsay passing it was held to be within the jurisdiction of the priory and could, in theory, claim sanctuary from his enemies for a year and a day.
Colonsay and Oronsay enjoy almost as much sunshine as Tiree, the record-holder for Scotland, and a much lower rainfall than that of the mainland. Walking is rugged rather than difficult; there are antiquities to explore, white, empty beaches, and seal colonies on the islets and skerries. Wild goats flourish at Balnahard and on Oronsay – long-horned, black-fleeced creatures said to be descended from goats that swam ashore from ships of the Spanish Armada wrecked off the shores in 1588. Rabbits abound, for there are no foxes, stoats or weasels, but danger lurks in the air where high-flying golden eagles soar in readiness to swoop down on silent wings.
There is an 18-hole golf course, and dinghies can be hired from the Colonsay Yacht Club at the hotel; accommodation is at the hotel, or in self-catering cottages or flats at Colonsay House.
Most of Jura’s 94,000 acres consist of a wilderness of rock, moor and peat-bog, inhabited only by deer and their hunters; its deer must have been famous even in the days of the Vikings, for its name comes from the Norse Dyr Oe, ‘Deer Island’. Those who hear the Call of the Wild should resist it; the interior, one of the largest uninhabited areas in Britain, can be dangerous for inexperienced walkers, and is especially so from mid-August to February, when the deerstalkers are active.
All of this is in astonishing contrast with the island’s green and fertile south-eastern tip, where fuchsias, rhododendrons and even palm trees grow. There live most of Jura’s population of some 200, and there too
ISLAY’S ‘WATER OF LIFE’
Malt whisky is produced on Islay by the traditional ‘pot still’ process from barley that has been malted, or soaked and left to germinate. The barley is dried in a peat kiln to stop germination and add the distinctive flavour which varies from distillery to distillery. The malt whiskies of Islay are world-renowned as being among the finest ‘single malt’ whiskies. Some are bottled and sold as a product of a single distillery, but most are used in the production of blended whiskies which may contain as many as 40 different grain and malt whiskies. is the island’s capital, Craighouse, which contains the island’s only shop, hotel, cafe, garage and distillery. There are some more scattered houses further up the east coast, but not many; one of them, atBarnhill, far to the north, was occupied for a time by George Orwell, who wrote some of his best-known novels there, including Animal Farm and 1984.
The island’s best-known landmarks are the three conical mountains, about 2,500 ft high, known as the Paps of Jura. They can be seen from the mainland, and from all over the Hebrides, blued with distance, faintly mysterious and generally wearing a fine veil of cloud over their summits.
Another famous, or infamous, feature is the Gulf of Corryvreckan, which lies between Jura and near-uninhabited Scarba. A 10 knot tide race channelled into the narrow gulf becomes a seething maelstrom of broken white water and whirlpools whose roar can be heard miles away. It has claimed many vessels down the centuries, and who shall live and who shall drown is said to be determined by the Cailleach, the witch who controls the race.
The only access to Jura is by the 5 minute ferry from Port Askaig on Islay to the pier at Feolin Ferry. Accommodation on the island is limited.
While so many of the Inner Hebrides seem to be slipping away into a gentle Celtic reverie, Islay, the southernmost of them, is positively vibrant. It has a population of 4,000 and each year it presents to the Exchequer the equivalent of £7,000 for each man, woman and child on the island.
The reason for these riches is uisgebaugh, ‘the water of life’ – whisky, which Islay produces in large quantities from several distilleries. And the reason for the distilleries is Islay’s streams and Islay’s peat. Much of the island’s 235 square miles consists of peat, and every year each of the distilleries burns 800 tons of it, hand-cut from black trenches, to dry the malt. And since the Atlantic mists have been soaking into the turf for thousands of years, it is not surprising that the smoke imparts a special flavour to Islay whisky; slightly harsh and dry, with a far-off hint of the sea.
There are also more than 500 farms on Islay, and away from the boggy lowlands there is a wide variety of scenery, from the wild cliffs of the Mull of Oa – where there is a monument to the American servicemen who died when the troopships Tuscania and Otranto sank near by in 1918 – to the incredible blueness of Loch Gorm in Kilcho-man. Or there is the contrast between the Rhinns of Islay with its ancient stone circles and breakers slow-marching in from the Atlantic, and the sonorous peace of Laggan Bay, which offers 5 uninterrupted miles of shell-sand and is called, appropriately, The Big Strand. At its northern end the River Laggan flows to the sea – a river with a good autumn run of salmon and sea trout.
The chief ways to Islay (pronounced I’la) are by air, when aircraft from Glasgow expertly skim the spine of Kin tyre and open up views of the entire Hebrides, or by ferry from Kennacraig to Port Ellen and Port
Askaig. This is a charming village on Kilnaughton Bay where there is safe bathing and sailing; some of the most famous Islay distilleries are near by, and occasionally offer guided tours. Some 7 miles to the north-east is the ruined Kildalton chapel with its beautiful 8th-century Celtic cross. When this blew down 100 years ago, the skeletons of a man and a woman were discovered beneath it; the man at least had been horribly tortured to death.
Bowmore, however, is the administrative centre of the island. At the head of the wide main street is a perfectly round church built in 1767; a plaque on its tower records that it was built by ‘Daniel Campbell, Lord of this Island’. The distillery, which dates from 1779, has a museum. Among several other townships on Islay is Port Charlotte, compact and neat, which contains a comprehensive folk museum and a creamery where Islay cheese – rather like a strong Cheddar -is made.
Despite its busyness, Islay is still unspoiled. Even the whisky is nothing new; the island was famous for it in the Middle Ages when the MacDonald Lords of the Isles ruled their empire from there.