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

 

 

FERGUS' PICK OF THE ISLANDS' BEST WILDLIFE

Colonsay and Oronsay boast a surprisingly wide variety of habitats, from wild peat bogs to verdant meadows, ancient oak woods, machair grassland, tidal flats and cliffs. It’s worth visiting them all to see the full range of animals and plants.

 

  1. Golden eagle
    Two pairs of these magnificent raptors carve up Colonsay and Oronsay between them. They hunt rabbits, raid seabird colonies and scavenge the odd dead sheep or goat.
    The best place to look for them is in the skies above Balnahard at the craggy northern end of Colonsay. Despite their size, eagles are easy to confuse with buzzards, but their long, rectangular wings are a giveaway.
     
  2. Wild goat
    These stocky, impressively-horned herbivores live in the wild east of Colonsay. They possibly originated from the holds of Spanish Armada galleons wrecked here in 1588.
    Due to their destructive grazing, the goats are fenced out of several areas to protect the fragile flora, but there’s something undeniably special about watching them at large on the windswept moors.
     
  3. Grey seal
    One of the wildlife highlights of a September visit to the islands is grey seal pupping. The top location for getting close to the young without disturbing them is between the islands on the Strand.
    The seals mate at this time of year, too, and their mournful calls can be unnerving when drifting through a sea mist. Smaller numbers of common seals also breed here. 
     
  4. Corncrake
    Arriving in late April, corncrakes are best known for the rasping, monotonous call of the males, which is often heard at dusk. The species’ scientific name, Crex crex, gives an indication of the song’s lack of melody.Corncrakes skulk for a living, but can be easier to see in September, when young birds are foraging in preparation for the flight to their African wintering grounds.
     
  5. Machair grassland
    Best seen in May and June but still in evidence until well into September, the wildflower extravaganza of the machair is a bitter-sweet reminder of how Britain’s pastoral landscapes used to be infused with wild colour.Machair is a type of coastal grassland found on sandy soils, in which orchids rub shoulders with pansies and bloody cranesbill, among many other beauties.

 

ESSENTIAL TRAVEL INFORMATION

Getting there

  • The jumping-off point for reaching Colonsay is Oban, a 2¼-hour rail journey from Glasgow (with spectacular views from your carriage window on the way). For timetable information, contact Traveline Call 0871 200 2233; 

  • From Oban, you can fly to Colonsay on the twice-daily Tuesday and Thursday service operated by Highland Airways ☎ 0845 450 2245; www.highland airways.co.uk. But the cheaper option, which offers wildlife-viewing opportunities en route, is to take the ferry. For more details, contact Caledonian MacBrayne Ferries Call 0800 066 5000; 

Accommodation

  • The only hotel and bar on the islands is the delightful Colonsay Hotel  Call 01951 200316. For a list of B&Bs and cottages for rent, click here

  • It’s possible to camp wild on Colonsay, but make sure you get some local advice about the best places to set up your tent. guided walks

  • Kevin Byrne offers a guided tour of Colonsay’s wildlife hotspots, with plenty of insights into local history and geography thrown in. It costs £10 per adult and £5 per child under 16. Walks may vary from year to year. For more information, contact Kevin Byrne Call 01951 200320.

 

When Fergus visited the islands, he was the features editor of BBC Wildlife. Now, he is the editor of BBC Countryfile, and Ben is hoping to retrace his steps. Meet Ben and the rest of the team here

 

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