Best For Getting Away From It All: Colonsay
Saturday 08 January 2005
Even today the island of Colonsay is pretty remote - a good two and a half hours by ferry from the major West Highland port of Oban - but in 1944 it was even more so
Even today the island of Colonsay is pretty remote - a good two and a half hours by ferry from the major West Highland port of Oban - but in 1944 it was even more so. In his evocative memoir, A Life in Movies, the film director Michael Powell recounts his four-day journey there from Glasgow, by way of Greenock, Tarbert, Crinan and Jura. Powell was already a passionate aficionado of islands: he had made The Edge of the World in 1938 about the forbiddingly isolated island of Foula in Shetland. But Colonsay was something else:
"The island had no jetty, and sent a boat out to meet the steamer. There was a comfortable little hotel, and we soon scrambled to a high point of the island, which was only 300 feet above sea level. From here the whole glorious panorama from Iona to Kintyre lay before us, and I shouted out that this wonderful land and seascape could be the only setting for our story. If I could only get a film unit up here, and somehow feed and lodge them, I knew that we would bring back a wonderful film. It wasn't just the scenery, it was the feel of the place."
Powell and Pressburger's romance, I Know Where I'm Going, eventually had to be shot on Mull for practical reasons, but it is filled with references to the island and its remoteness, and the difficulty in getting there provides much of the plot. But Colonsay is still as wonderful today as it was for Powell.
There's a jetty now for the steamer, but otherwise not a great deal has changed. I first came across the island 20 years ago when my brother, then a builder in Edinburgh, put a new roof on the still comfortable little hotel. He loved it immediately and began his regular annual or twice-annual visits which continue today. I first came in 1995 and made my third trip there last Easter. People who come once tend to keep coming.
The island is about 10 miles long by two miles wide, including the satellite island of Oransay in the south, which is accessible across the sea bed at low tide. Its permanent population is less than a hundred, easily outnumbered by the wildlife. There are almost 200 species of bird, and 400 species of flora. There's a population of feral goats, a thriving seal colony and otters in almost every bay. There are numerous sandy coves - including the gorgeous wide sands of Kiloran Bay - and beautiful lochs for fishing the native brown trout. The woodland gardens of "the big house", Colonsay House, are stocked with a wonderful range of trees and shrubs, including a famous rhododendron collection. There's an 18-hole links golf course reputedly over 200 years old. The climate is generally mild, with low rainfall and long hours of sunshine in the summer. Even the winters are mild, with frost and snow almost unknown.
Walking, climbing, fishing, bathing, golfing, birdwatching: Colonsay naturally lends itself to traditional outdoorsy family holidays - children can mostly be safely left to their own devices. There's only one road round the island and traffic is - to say the least - infrequent. In addition to the hotel there are several guest houses and bed and breakfasts, but most of the accommodation is in 40 or so self-catering houses and cottages. The majority belong the Colonsay Estate, including the largest on the island, Machrins, which sleeps 12, a handsome and comfortable farmhouse with fine views out to sea. The island shop caters well for basic needs, but Colonsay also offers its own beef and lamb, as well as honey and oysters. And if you go down at low tide to The Strand, which separates Colonsay and Oransay, you can gather your own mussels.
Oransay is tiny but worth a visit for the beautiful ruins of the priory founded in the eighth century when St Columba brought Christianity to Scotland - though most of what you can see is medieval. They also contain the grave of Colonel Sir John McNeill, born in 1831 at Colonsay House. He was a great imperial soldier, who fought in the Indian Mutiny, won the VC in the Maori wars in New Zealand, and later served in Canada and the Sudan.
For competitive visitors, mention must be made of the island's equivalent of the mainland's Munro-bagging: McPhie-bagging. A McPhie is defined as any eminence in excess of 300 feet, and there are 22 peaks on the official list. The aim is to climb all the peaks in the course of a connected walk. The distance is around 20 miles and the current remarkable record is just under four hours. I look forward to trying it next time. I think I might just manage seven.
For further information about Colonsay, including details of recommended accommodation and using the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry service, visit www.colonsay.org.uk
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