Colonsay Chronicles MeanDerings in may 2016

Tuesday 10th May

The sunblessed evening of Tuesday May 10th saw 4 excited travellers unusually on time to catch the mighty Clansman leaving at 7.05 from Tiree to arrive in Oban at 10.25.

A promising sunset from the Sound of Mull as the Hebridean Princess heads outward bound

Wednesday 11th May

Breakfast 8.30 after very warm night, then a morning spent walking, shoe shopping, coffee drinking and food trolley filling. We lunched on sandwiches like proper tourists lounging on the concrete slope of the jetty.

... Hey, they know about Heylipol palms !!

Just time for a quick nostalgic visit to Ganavan sands before joining the Calmac queue at 2.50pm to board the MV Hebridean Isles bound for the island of Colonsay, our desired destination for the week. Intriguingly, "because it's Wednesday", both parts of the completed Boarding pass must be handed in together !

Into the jaws of the friendly Heb Isles

It was a beautiful sail down the length of Kerrera seeing parts of this island quite new to us whilst watching the sights of Oban disappearing in the distance. We puzzled over the strange Gylen Castle jutting dramatically into the sky at the southern end of Kerrera and learned later that it was built in 1582, besieged and burned 65 years later, then restored in 2006.

Gylen Castle victim of the Wars of 3 Kingdoms 1646-1651

Viewing the Slate islands of Seil and Easdale on port side we sailed through the Sound of Insch past the tiny uninhabited island of Insch where it's private owner, a Londoner, lived in a cave at the north end between 1973 and 2003 !

Island of Insch, Gaelic Innis meaning.... island 🤔

It was good to meet up with friends Ros and Chris on their way home as we enjoyed the facility on the Heb Isles to watch from the bow the growing form of Colonsay island. By now the mainland of Argyll was hidden behind the spectacular bulk of the islands of Jura and Islay. And so after a very short 2.5 hours we docked at Scalasaig, Colonsay's main pier

Scalasaig pier photo bombed by the Paps of Jura

Colonsay welcomes its visitors in many ways. The first of these is a jolly useful 'Welcome pack' handed through the car window with a smile as you leave the pier.

Received with thanks

So, this is Colonsay, Kolbein's island in Old Norse and Colbhasa in Gaelic; 'an island warmed by the North Atlantic drift current and featuring breathtaking unspoilt beaches and abundant flora and fauna '. We travelled clockwise, 'sunwise', around the island to Upper Kilchattan, pronounced Kilhattan, to find the Baptist Manse. And on the way we were amazed at the different scenery from the panoramic views we are used to on Tiree. Here hefty crags, hills, valleys and even trees keep the secrets of each delightful vista until you are upon it.

Plenty of Colonsay not covered by road

The Manse welcomed us, firstly with a colourful, fragrant drive of prickly gorse, then with a pleasing, tasteful fresh interior, lovingly renovated by Alan Donaldson and his family. Alan is the Secretary General of the Baptist Union of Scotland and we are very grateful to him for all his efforts . As the week progressed we became more and more fascinated with this building, a product of "Arts and Crafts" designs. Historian Kevin Byrne in his book 'Lonely Colonsay', our handbook for the week, describes it as a ' very curious structure' and goes on to follow up connections with the Lutyen' s practice in London. It was built originally in 1930 for a retired Crofter and designed by Balfour Paul or 'Baffy', and Kevin notes that all the architects in Baffy's practice had worked on religious buildings so wonders if it's coincidental that the Manse has a flavour of representations of the Biblical Ark of the Covenant.

'Cnoc nam fad' translated 'The whole hill' or, is it to do with Loch Fada? And another wee welcome by the back door.

The renovations in 2014/15 tackled the long term roof troubles which had been a problem even during construction. This painting by Colonsay artist Rosalind Jewell shows the original roof construction.

Well, after a Tiree beef casserole tea, 'one we prepared earlier', we set out to explore. First off a walk down the pier to help our own Pier Chaplain feel settled.

Scalasaig pier built in 1965 to enable ferry links with Oban and Port Askaig on Islay
Again, the sunset didn't disappoint....

....... and as light was fading we returned to the Manse, already feeling like home, to a welcome rest.

Thursday 12th May

Hottest day of the week ! We paid an investigatory visit to the Church of Scotland, where there was an exhibition and sale of Arts and Crafts in aid of the Belfry Restoration Fund. The church is carefully maintained but the little 'birdcage' belfry had become unsafe and is undergoing restoration. The church was built in 1802 at a cost of £444. 11s. 6d..... But these necessary repairs are costing £60,000 !

Steps to the Doorway and Interior of the Church
The attractive coombed panelled ceiling

Leaving the church we walked down to Scalasaig to the Waiting Room Gallery to buy tickets at £5 each for a guided walk 2- 6pm this afternoon. This tiny gallery is packed with crafts and run by Sarah Hobhouse of Balnahard farm.

The Waiting Room for David MacBrayne's steamers provided after the South African War.

Quite coincidentally we have come to Colonsay on the third week of their annual Festival of Spring, what a bonus!

Here's the spring Festival timetable for WEEK 3 ! What a marathon for the Islanders !

We met the group and leaders at An Crossan near Kiloran bay at 2, then by Landrover convoy to Balnahard Farm to begin the walk towards the North End. This guided walk was advertised as 'A walk looking back at Balnahard in the 1st millennium' and between our two leaders Farmer David Hobhouse and Artist Andrew McMorrine we were treated to a catalogue of historical and legendary tales. Some of these were humorous and some blatantly unbelievable but it kept the group on their toes trying to decide which was which.

Farmer David Hobhouse whose family have had the agricultural tenancy of Balnahard for almost 80 years
Galloway dyke on the left, raised pebble beach on right

We motored along the visible track through the hills, parked, then walked back to look at this amazing raised beach on 3 old does that make the oldest one?? The pebbles have been sculptured to the shape of a whale 183m long. This can apparently be seen better from the air but it's pretty clear from the approach on the track. Repairing the Galloway dyke on the left is on David's to do list, not enviable, mending a wall of rounded stones with a 4 m base, but he has recently realised how ancient and precious this feature is.

Soo ......we stood on ancient forts, clambered up the richest woman in the world's fortress home, scrutinised the coast line for suitable harbours, scrambled round 'Bald Kenneth's Daughter's Rock' balanced perfectly upon a point no larger than an egg, gazed at the amazing views of Jura, walked around hut circles, admired the chapel and burial ground of St Catherine of Alexandria....and, oh it was HOT !! 😎

Chapel and burial ground of St Catherine, fenced off so that cattle don't wear this ancient standing stone completely away

And then the final stretch as we approached Balnahard Farmhouse, just 2.5 miles from the parked cars. Balnahard (Gaelic, Baile an h'Airde, farm at the cape) is uninhabited apart from this farm and it's virtually separated from the rest of the island by a bank of forbidding hills. A pair of nesting eagles inhabit one of these hills and have made it very difficult for David to get planning permission for his 10kw turbine, but he did!

Two and a half weary miles to go...
Eagle domain...but we didn't spot them

On our homeward journey we gave a lift to a cyclist with a puncture. She needed to be at Scalasaig so we made our way there and, well we might as well wait to see the Clansman dock. Why pass up an opportunity like that ! And then why not sample the cuisine at the Pantry while we watch, with a tiny tinge of homesickness, Tiree's McLennan Motors deliver Pantry supplies direct from Oban Tesco.

Friday 13th May

This morning some of us went to the Pier 🤔 and some of us explored the shop, yes shop, just the one, but a well stocked emporium. Enter the green door, turn right for shop left for post office. The larger building below houses the Colonsay Brewery and the Bookshop which is the headquarters of a thriving publishing house specialising in preserving Scotland's literary past, and in encouraging new talent.

Seats for the elderly to sit and appreciate the Community Garden
..and then we met up again to plan the next 'adventure'

This afternoon 2 hours before Low Tide we are to cross the Strand and explore the island of Oronsay. Oransay or Oronsay, either is right.

Crossing over from Colonsay to Oronsay

Now, all the guides say this is best done in Wellies but not one of us has wellies so it's every man for himself, some in walking boots, some in socks and crocs, some in bare feet. We pick our way across the worm casted wet sand, then wade through a deeper channel just before reaching the other side. Mid Strand we are overtaken by the post van and watch where he leaves the sand and enters land at the far shore, that's where we'll head, we plan.

Watch that van !

Finally we reach land but there's still another kilometre of track to cover before we reach the Priory.

This is the way Postie went.
The nearer we get to the Priory the better the track and the walls
Oh, what a lovely wall 🎤

The present owner of Oronsay, Mrs Frances Colburn, has taken care to maintain and preserve this environment and the farm buildings. The RSPB managers and farmers are Mike and Val Peacock. Their namesakes greet us with a haughty stare and a loud ugly shout in the Priory.

Do the beautiful feathers make up for the ugly call....?

Traditionally St Columba landed on Oransay from Ireland on his mission to spread Christianity. Because he could still see home from the top of Ben Oransay he feared homesickness and so travelled further on up to Iona to found the Abbey there in 563 AD. There is some evidence that his friends stayed on Oronsay and formed a monastic settlement. What we see now are the remains of Oransay Priory dedicated to St Columba between 1325 and 1353. As we wander around the cloisters we should remember the monks who would have looked after the sick and the poor, given medical aid and education along with their pastoral care.

In Scottish folklore Sunwise or Sunward (clockwise) was considered the prosperous course. Scottish writer Martin Martin wrote in the 17th century "The natives of Colonsay are accustomed, after their arrival in Oransay Isle, to make a tour sunways about the church before they enter upon any kind of business". He continues that to do otherwise would have risked a negative outcome in any undertaking. Similarly, boats must travel in a sunwise direction to ensure a safe journey, much to the disapproval of Martin, since he saw it as a pagan superstition. This superstition also applied to a funeral procession as it approached the grave, and I think this superstition still holds on Tiree.

The High Cross outside the church was very richly carved in the 15th century

This distinctive building attached to Oransay Farm and similar to the one at Machrins, is a Gin Gang or Mill-round or a Horse Engine house. It's a structure built to enclose a horse mill, usually circular or octagonal and attached to a threshing barn. The threshing barn holds a threshing machine connected to the gin gang by wooden gears and drive shafts, and the structure was to shelter the wooden gears, not to protect the horse. So gin, short for enGINe, was the horse mill, and the horse did the GANG or going. It was necessary in a location without water for a waterwheel and the gin gangs on Colonsay and Oronsay enabled the farmers to be independent of the Miller at Ballarulin, sadly bringing an end to his trade.

Gin Gang at the Oronsay Priory
Gin Gang at Machrins

All too soon it was time to return and retrace our wet foot steps across the Strand which at 6.24 was fortunately still relatively dry. By now it was quite cold and we were finally glad to get back to the warmth and comfort of the Manse among the gorse.

Spot the Manse perched on the gorse hillside

Saturday 14th May

Pictures of Colonsay House Gardens speak for themselves. We had a wonderful afternoon exploring this microcosm of tropical verdure set in a sheltered hollow just south of Kiloran Bay.

Woodland carpeted in wild garlic and blue bells
Colonsay House and Tea room
Largest Cypress tree in Scotland
..and a very large leaf !
Winter fuel in abundance
The Fresnel Lens from the Stevenson built Islay lighthouse
Colour, colour, colour....
Some Azaleas and rhododendrons in bloom
St Onan's well

Followed by a walk on the beautiful Kiloran Bay

Sunday 15th May

The joint church service this week is held at the Church of Scotland at 11.30 in Scalasaig. This means that the Church of Scotland provide a Minister, a lady ex-missionary from Bunessan on Mull, and the Baptist church supply a Bible reader, in this instance Tiree's part time Minister willingly obliged. The sermon based on Acts 2 assured us that through the power of God's Holy Spirit we are enabled to achieve things we might think too difficult or even impossible. It was good to meet with other Christians, some from Colonsay and several holiday makers from far away places like Essex and Dundee. Next week the Baptist church will be host to the worship service. We have previously visited the Baptist church building not far from the Manse. We noted the brightness inside due to large windows on both sides.

Inside the Baptist Church. It's true, there is Hope if we put our trust in our Creator.
Manse 'next door' to the Church

After lunch we drove to an area classified as ' rough pasture' and by the end of the day we could confirm that ! It's on the east coast and just north of Scalasaig, Riasg Buidhe ( Yellow Dirk grass) and almost uninhabited apart from 8 homes at Glassard nearest to Scalasaig. Our walk took in the ruined house Bonaveh and the Lost Village, a 19th century fishing settlement, a street of terrace cottages.

Terrace of cottages
Angry Laird approaches !
What looked like a track on the map !

But to compensate for the 'scramble' we were rewarded by a visit from the resident wild goat community said to have been introduced by a stray vessel of the Spanish Armada !

Colonsay's Wild Goats

We neared the shore and the houses of Glassard built in 1922/23 as part of a national programme to provide 'homes for heroes'. They were used to rehouse the former residents of Riasg Buidhe and when completed made Colonsay famously the first community in Britain where every household had running water and a fixed loo. This was the work of a remarkable Dr.Roger McNeill (1853-1924) son of a Baptist family at Kilchattan. He graduated from Edinburgh University, travelled the world as a ship's doctor then became resident medical officer to the Infectious Hospitals in London. Later he was the first County Medical Officer for Argyll, first post to be established anywhere in Britain! Through all this he had campaigned for Colonsay's health, exposing the very unsanitary conditions of its housing. So when the Glassard houses were built he immediately called for the roofs of the vacated cottages here to be burnt to prevent re-occupation.

The new Glassard houses with a familiar Clansman backdrop

Monday 16th May

A pleasant morning walk (turning left off the drive) took us past the Mill House with its redundant machinery gracing the gardens, redundant because with the introduction of gin gangs the water mill no longer had the monopoly for threshing.

Ballarulin Water Mill

From here we took the track towards Loch an Sgoltaire where a modern water treatment system ensures Colonsay's water quality conforms to EEC standards.

Water treatment plant Loch Sgoltaire, well recorded by the enthusiastic team

Within minutes of setting out on today's second adventure our hearts sank at this sight

Oh NO !

Nothing for it but to find the jack, the locking wheel nut, release the spare from under, find the handbook and change the wheel. Then set out gingerly on the spare for a late coffee and cake at the Colonsay hotel.....

The Colonsay appraised by Ursula wearing sky hued apparel

.....a very pleasant, tasteful, restful and welcoming establishment. Here we learnt about the island mechanic Graham McWhirter and where to find him. We did find him in Glenoran and very helpful he was ! One of his interests was to fix a bird box outside his shed and attach a video camera to catch every movement of a blue tit family. We were kindly invited in to watch the young birds being fed.

Video camera plugged into the back of TV screen in the lounge. See the hungry babies !

Enthusiastic tourists are not the only export from Tiree, she also regularly provides expert nursing cover.

Tuesday 17th May

On day one we discovered that the electric kettle was tripping the fuse box so we spent the week boiling water in the microwave. Day two we ordered a new kettle, from Amazon of course, but Amazon would only recognise the address of a neighbouring house with that post code. The kettle parcel duly arrived on the Monday delivered to our neighbours but claimed on Tuesday by us at the Post Office. Result !

Note the background!

This is the first rainy day of the week ! First a quick trip to the Shop and the Surgery to remove a sheep ✅ from one of our party. Ouch ! A drive to the Strand followed lunch; the strand which separates Colonsay from Oronsay. We looked in wonderment at the vast sea which we had traversed on 'almost' dry ground last Friday!

Looking over to Oronsay from Colonsay

Back to Scalasaig and a much anticipated visit to the well stocked Bookshop and a chat with the owner and author Kevin Byrne, expert on Ferns and Ecclesiastical history. On to the Island Tip with recycling items, and home again still being careful on the spare wheel.

The Colonsay's tasteful welcome

Our evening meal was booked for 7pm at the Colonsay. We enjoyed the food very much and were entertained by almost half the island celebrating some thing joyful and noisy on two long tables alongside us. We heard later it was to celebrate the end of this year's Spring Festival. Having moved around the island and joined in various groups this week we realised that we knew quite a few of them. During the meal the weather worsened from dreich to a stormy downpour

Wednesday 18th May

Early on the last morning 😢 we have visitors in the garden, moving about quite nimbly, but hard to spot on the still photo.

There is actually a small flock of Colonsay black sheep in this picture.

Cleaned up and packed up we made our way to the pier to begin our homeward journey.

Safely aboard

Looking back at Colonsay now we can relate to most of the places and buildings. We watch carefully the coast of Glassard to view the trackless waste we had traversed 3 days before.

A panorama of familiar places

Goodbye Colonsay

We have very much enjoyed our stay with you

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