Colonsay and Oronsay: a tale of two Scottish islands

It’s still possible to find untouched Edens in Britain. Fergus Collins visits a pair of islands on western Scotland’s Celtic fringe, where wildlife far outnumbers people.

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Explore Colonsay and Oronsay Islands article spread

 

The oaks are a useful screen for studying the grey and common seals that bask on offshore rocks. Better still, further along there’s a series of coves where you’re in with a real chance of seeing otters. Keep your bins trained on the water. Scan any blob. It could be an otter – or even a whole family – playing in the kelpy water. Failing that, you may find spraits on a rock or even a holt.

 

Uphill struggle

The grand finale of Kevin’s walk is a steep climb up an inland crag. He will pause, claiming he’s out of breath, but don’t be fooled. It’s just to make you feel better. Meanwhile, ravens billow effortlessly around the crags, croaking their contact calls as if to mock those struggling below.

Buzzards find a way of fitting in here as well, and a pair of golden eagles has made an eyrie at the mountainous north end of the island, though they’re frustratingly elusive for such large birds.

From our vantage point, we descend to the sweep of Kiloran Bay on the west coast. Its sand is unbelievably fine and as golden as that of any South Sea atoll. But there are no ice-cream vans – just waves, sand and solitude. And the occasional sneezing shriek of a chough.

More buoyant than crows and ravens, these blue-black corvids survive only on the UK’s warm, western coasts where insects can be found all year.

 

A well deserved rest

Kevin’s walk ends at Kiloran and by now you’ll probably want a rest. There’s plenty more to explore, though. If you hanker for exotic colour and shelter, Colonsay House’s garden will take you into its Victorian bosom and whisk you away from the Hebrides into a botanist’s fantasy.

Then there are the strange lochs – all called Loch Fada – that drip like tears through the heart of the island. The road from Colonsay House to Lower Kilchattan takes you along their northern shores, with the epic peak of Beinn nan Gudairean rising behind.

Southern Colonsay is wilder still – moors, cliffs and dunes cut through by a single road. Head first to the sands and splintered rocks of Ardskenish – a great place to appreciate the blaze of grassland wildflowers in summer.

If seabirds are your thing, visit the savage cliffs just north, where you’ll find colonies of kittiwakes, shags, guillemots and fulmars.

 

Southern sibling

The southern end of Colonsay has another attraction – the island of Oronsay. At low tide, Oronsay loses its island status and it becomes possible to walk or drive across the ‘Strand’.

Arrive when the tide is still going out and you get a sense of what it must have been like for Moses, waiting for the Red Sea to part. Eventually, the choppy waves seem to harden into rippled sand, but you’ll still have to do a little paddling during the crossing, so bring wellies.

The sandy shallows are perfect cockle beds and you might be tempted to do a Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and eat one of the molluscs raw (they’re delicious), but you’ll face stiff competition from local oystercatchers. These smartly turned out waders with their carrot-orange bills would surely rival avocets in the public’s affection if they were rarer.

 

Summer specials

On the other side, choughs welcome you back to dry land – they breed on Beinn Oronsay, the heights above the Strand. However, the main reason for braving the tides is the flourishing population of corncrakes, summer visitors to Oronsay.

At least 20 pairs breed here, thanks to the hard work of Mike and Val Peacock, who manage the island for the RSPB. They are aided by a team of hundreds – sheep and cattle – whose various cropping techniques create the ideal habitat for the fussy corncrakes. A little bit of short grass here for foraging, a little tuft of nettles there for bolting into at the first sign of danger. The list goes on. But the rarity and extraordinary voice of these birds makes it all worthwhile.

There are also raucous gull and tern colonies on Oronsay in summer, while huge flocks of barnacle geese and other wildfowl descend at different times to lend a hand to the grazers.

From May onwards, the grassy sand dunes are transformed by flowers and you can’t help but be seduced by the glimmering stretches of beach beyond that soften the island’s edges.

 

Unexpected guests

Of course, don’t forget to make your way back across the Strand before the tide comes in. Mike and Val have lost count of the times they’ve had to get their boat out to take dawdling daytrippers back to Colonsay.

You have to admire their hard graft in such a remote place. They’re among the few people to have settled on Colonsay and Oronsay in recent years – in fact, the two islands are becoming ever more wild as the human population dwindles.

But who knows – perhaps your visit might tempt you to stay. If you’ve got an idea for a sustainable business, you can apply for substantial government grants and a plot of land to help you set up on Colonsay. What better way to get close to the wildest corners of Britain?

 

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