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If the isle of Colonsay begins to sound like a birdy sort of place, then that is an indication both of its diversity of landscape and the fact that it is comparatively undisturbed. Most of the dogs work for a living and there are no caravan sites, waterskiers, juke boxes, tartan dolly shops, or off-road bikers.
There are, however, choughs. You may arrive in the Isle of Colonsay in ignorance of them. By the time you leave, you will be an expert. Choughs are very rare crows. (They are pronounced 'chuffs' and were written that way by my wife until I noticed. Apologies to the birdy folk.) From a distance, they look black, in common with most of their corvid cousins. If you observe choughs closely as they poke about for grubs and gollachs in a cow-pat, you may glimpse their bright red beaks and feet. (They presumably wash a lot, given their feeding habits.) In flight they look like square and raggy-winged jet-black jackdaws. They are extremely scarce in Scotland, with small colonies only on a few of the Inner Hebrides, where their survival, research shows, seems to be dependent on the over-wintering of cattle outside.
Choughs are only one from 150 birds which turn up on Colonsay. The list also includes the odd golden eagle or the rare Isle of Colonsay corncrake. The island is also particularly good for birds in the off-season, when the barnacle and white-fronted geese visit. (This last species is the one described in an Argyll local paper, thanks to a crackly phone line and a deaf copy-taker, as Y-fronted geese!) Boat trips around the Isle of Colonsay are now also available on a Tuesday. This two hour marine trip takes you to see seabirds on the cliffs as well as possibly some marine wildlife.
Apart from the wildlife attractions of the birds, goats, seal and otters, the Isle of Colonsay is also most attractive for its sense of community. Unlike other parts of the west of Scotland, the island was never forcibly cleared by greedy landlords, though emigration anddepopulation has taken place. Of the 120 inhabitants, several families go back many generations on the island.
Colonsay also attracts folk with an interest in early history. There are duns (early hill forts), burial cairns, standing stones and other prehistoric paraphernalia littering the island, while the most spectacular survivor from the past can be seen onOronsay. This is, strictly speaking, a separate island, separated from the isle of Colonsay at low water by a mile of sandflats, called the Strand, a splashy cockle-strewn haunt of plover and visitors glancing at their watches. The tide comes up to your neck - but only very slowly - if you mis-time your visit.
Folk bring their wellies because of Oronsay Priory. This abandoned Augustinian House was founded in the second quarter of the 14th century by John, Lord of the Isles. (The Lords of the Isles were powerful Gaelic 'princes' of the west Highlands, onlynominally under the control of the Scottish kings.) The surviving complex shows a series of building phases between 14th-16th centuries. The grave slabs, with their coldly-carved grey warriors, and the magnificent early 16th century cross are well worth a mile of soggy sand and the same of dubby road, unless your wellies leak a lot.
Finally, if you tire of the gloriously unstructured outdoors (and if you do, you certainly chose the wrong island), then you can try a round of golf. However, a rabbit-hole-in-one does not count and it may be wise to agree beforehand that the winner is the one who loses least balls. Perhaps the sheep eat them. Even golf takes on an island dimension here.
Or you could stroll along to the www.colonsaybrewery.co.uk - it claims to be the smallest island in the world with its own brewery and they welcome visitors. Opening hours depend on the stage of production but there is someone about most days.
Make sure you stay long enough to see at least one ferry come and go. You will feel wonderfully superior to the harried, tight-schedule tourist who only manages a few hours on a peak-season day trip. Unspoilt is an overworked word, but certainly Colonsay gives the impression that it has some way to go before it loses its identity in the trammels of tourism.
The island's oysters add a new dimension to any previously known definition of fresh seafood. The Isle of Colonsay Wildflower Honey has a unique flavour as it is made from wildflower nectar including the strong aromatic oils of the wild thyme that grows on the machair. It is made by the pure bred native black bee of Colonsay. The local produce for the hotel also includes a long growing season in its vegetable garden. This is because of the Gulf Stream, which brings its mildness to the aid of brochure copywriters the length of the western Scottish seaboard. Frost on Colonsay is quite rare.
Colonsay explodes the myth that remoteness must mean second-best quality. Just check the hotel wine list. And with the highest point on the island only 450 feet, the rain clouds usually sail straight over to cling to the big Highland hills, miles away to the east. Neither does it mean to be exclusive: simply finite in its accommodation and direct in its appeal to mildly outdoor adventurers with a taste for choughs (and good food). If you prefer kilted kitsch, you could always stay in Oban.
For more information on the Isle of Colonsay follow that link to our other page on this lovely island. It's actually the first page. Wait a minute, that's maybe how you got here. Och, read it again anyway.
Return to the main Scottish islands page.
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Scotland in Three Days