11 June 2011 Scotsman Magazine 33
Slow down fast
Colonsay restores its visitors with wildness and warmth. Prepare to be enchanted. By Lesley Riddoch
Was it a good crossing? Such a question on an April day of flat calm could be asked only by a resident of the frequently storm-bound Hebridean island. In fact, the two and a bit hours ferry trip from Oban to Colonsay had been like a Mediterranean cruise – albeit one with fish and chips rather than Greek salad and olives.
"It's been like this for two weeks," explained the receptionist, stoking the wood burning stove of the lounge in the
Colonsay Hotel. Later that evening the French windows were still open to let all that heat escape. It had been Colonsay's hottest April day for 30 years and there was not a midge in sight.
The islanders took a risk holding their first Spring Festival in April and May. But they timed their month-long celebration of the glorious outdoors to perfection. At night, no light is visible along the mountainous edge of Jura's west coast or the largely unpopulated southern flanks of Mull and Iona. And the steady wink from Islay is only a lighthouse. The Outer Hebrides and the Northern Isles may be more geographically remote, but Colonsay is more tucked away.
It was a different story when St Columba landed here and gave his name to the island in 563. Legend has it he travelled to the adjoining tidal island of Oronsay, climbed a hill, spotted Ireland and decided to move further north
to neighbouring Iona. Once too close to civilisation for comfort, Colonsay doesn't have that problem today – even
though a regular airlink to Oban can reduce the journey to minutes. But the difficulty reaching Colonsay means it's often the last substantial Hebridean island for many seasoned Hebridean visitors, in the same way that Ben More – constantly visible on neighbouring Mull – is often the final Munro.
The ferry times could have something to do with it. No boat comes in on a Saturday. No boat goes out on a Monday.
Perhaps too, there's a subconscious expectation that the length of the ferry journey should relate to the size of the destination. Colonsay is wee and isolated. It's also an unspoilt, natural paradise. Five times the size of Iona, Colonsay
has an extraordinary diversity of habitat from sea cliffs to powder white sandy beaches, and low dun-topped, heatherclad hills. Deciduous woodlands in the north are carpeted with acres of white wild garlic, bluebells and forget-me-not. And the Spring Festival programme was designed to make sure visitors don't miss a single natural wonder. Not even daybreak on Beltane – the Gaelic celebration of summer.
We set our alarms to 3:45am to rise in the darkness of 1 May, tiptoe out of the hotel, climb on our bikes and cycle
uphill for 20 minutes to see the sun rise over Jura, and witness the illumination of four other hilltop signal points used
in Viking times to warn of invasion. I was also curious to see if seriousminded farmers, crofters, hoteliers, bookshop owners and mainland guests were actually willing to scramble round island peaks in the dark with beacons, head-torches and tackety boots. They were.
Our windy summit had a dozen eager Beltane watchers lying snug in the springy cushion of hilltop heather as the light spectrum slowly changed. Cycling back to a very early bacon roll at the Pantry (one of only two regular
eateries on the island) was no less memorable.
Fields were full of crickets, creating the deafening early morning hum of cicadas on Crete. Cuckoos and corncrakes were calling – interrupted by the hoot of a distant owl. It's very easy to lose the pace of mainland time on Colonsay. The ferry arrives at a different time every day so papers, fresh bread, and supplies from the mainland might arrive in
Colonsay is wee and isolated. It's
also an unspoilt, natural paradise
the Scalasaig shop at 9am or 6pm – postal collections follow the same pattern.
Clearances didn't happen here in the 18th century so the island has a legacy of substantial cottages and small farms. With a population of just 120 today, many have become holiday homes – 20 owned by the estate, 20 by other islandersand there are two B&Bs. A development committee is seeking to boost the number of permanent residents – meantime the island caters perfectly for self-sufficient self-catering visitors ... and cyclists.
One day's good cycle took us across the wide tidal shell sands of the Strand to Oronsay whose ruined Augustinian Priory, built around 1380, still has perfectly preserved miniature cloisters, a striking 4m high Celtic cross, a stunning
ocean-side location and a serene stillness often absent on busy Iona. Nearby, Eilean nan Ron is a favourite breeding ground for grey seals, visible near most beaches on the west coast. Low tide tables are posted at the hotel – walkers
have four hours either side of low tide to set out and return to the island. This freedom to roam is perhaps Colonsay's greatest treasure. Hamish Haswell Smith's book on Scottish islands reports that Colonsay has perhaps the greatest variety of flora in the Hebrides with 500 species and concludes: "Visitors may wander freely."
Nature is right outside the door at every turn – not behind a barbed wire fence, a keep out sign or an obstructive wall. Local maps show routes to abandoned villages, prehistoric standing stones, a medieval temple, an "old
road" to Colonsay Gardens and an isolated track through untroubled herds of highland cattle and protective ewes with lambs to the stunning northernmost beach at Balnahard. En route we cycled past the 520ft long "stone whale" created by artist Julian Meredith who plans to enlist volunteers during next year's festival to restore its massive sunken stone tail. Julian and his partner Jane hosted workshops on print-making and weaving plant dyed wool. I'd no idea that kilts were dyed using crottal – the vivid yellow lichen that grows on dry stane dykes, though we missed the bee-keeping classes by Andrew Abrahams, known locally as Mr Oyster because he also harvests and delivers the sweet Colonsay oysters which have acquired cult status. Quietly.
But then, that's the island's style. Colonsay is low key, relaxed and quiet. Perhaps that's why politicians love it. We met former Labour leader Wendy Alexander on the boat with a large group of her extended family (originally from
Mull) keen to meet up with Colonsay cousins. David and Samantha Cameron pop across from neighbouring Jura where her stepfather owns land. And Highland Lib Dem MP and Cabinet Secretary Danny Alexander grew up and went to school here while his dad ran a pottery. All island life revolves around the Colonsay Hotel – a lovely Hebridean home from home which manages to combine Mairi Hedderwick-style painted pastelcoloured wood panelling with a bold fuchsia pink wall in the dining room.
I commended hotel owner Jane Howard on reviving the rural habit of painting not varnishing wood – but it seems the hotel's distinctive decor was by virtue of necessity. "When we took over the hotel we had just enough for the sale price and essential repairs with nothing left for interiors," Jane explains. "So we painted everything – wooden floors, panelling, ceilings and walls. Guests often ask for the name of our interior designer. I just smile and say, it was me."
An open layout connects the locals in the traditional bar and the residents in the sofa-strewn lounge – prompting craic and communication across the usual visitor/residents divide. One night, we ate an excellent three course meal barefoot in the dining room while mud-caked cycling shoes were left outside to dry. No-one batted an eyelid. So many islands are troubled by loss of confidence and decline. Colonsay folk believe they inhabit the most beautiful small island in the West. With this first Spring Festival they've been able to prove it. Book early for next year.
THE FACTS Colonsay Hotel (www.colonsayestate.co.uk); Ferries from Oban(www.calmac.co.uk); Spring Festival