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.
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.
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 !
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 !
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
....... 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 !
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.
Quite coincidentally we have come to Colonsay on the third week of their annual Festival of Spring, what a bonus!
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.
We motored along the visible track through the hills, parked, then walked back to look at this amazing raised beach on 3 levels...how 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 !! 😎
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!
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.
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.
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.
Finally we reach land but there's still another kilometre of track to cover before we reach the Priory.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 !
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.
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.
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.
.....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.
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.