Colonsay: Just the Spirit!

There’s lots of chat about Scotland’s islands: from who owns and lives on them to who works on them and who makes a living from them. There are close to 800 islands off our shores – and people live permanently on around 250 of them! As people’s lives change – work-life balance becomes ever-more important – and that’s to the benefit of the isles. The population on Scotland’s islands has been increasing since the late 1960s and early ’70s. In fact, between the last two censuses, the islands’ growth rate is more than 600% that of the country as a whole, so no real encouragement needed to attract folk!

The islands existed long before any of us – and they’ll exist long after us all. In the meantime, we just want to visit them – responsibly – so whoever owns and manages them can ensure they’re here for all to enjoy today, tomorrow and for the generations to come. This summer, we visited an island that has been owned by the same family for more than a century and is working to provide a year-round destination …

Colonsay: mention it to most and it generates a vague look of ‘yes, we’ve heard of that … err … where is it again?‘ It lies north of Islay and south of Mull – part of the Inner Hebrides – and is just eight miles long and three miles wide.

As with many an island visit, our holiday began in Oban – and included an obligatory visit to the Oban Seafood Hut (or the green shack as some call it) right next to the ferry terminal. The freshest, local seafood is available – either to take away for meals to come or to enjoy prepared and cooked in their canopied seating area. A note for all (as we always forget), they don’t take card payments – cash only. There are ATMs not far away in the town centre.

Once aboard the Calmac Clansman, holiday mode kicked in: there’s something about sea travel that makes you unwind … and helps the anticipation heighten. We traveled on a perfect day – blue skies, mill-pond sea and stunning views across to Mull and the mainland for the whole trip.

Colonsay (pictured as we were arriving to dock above right) is a haven not just for wildlife but for those who have chosen to make it their home – and to visitors looking to escape the mainland’s madcap rat race.

There are around 130 residents and it also lays claim to be the smallest island in the world with its own brewery … and there are two Colonsay gins as well!

Colonsay is the ancestoral home of Clan Macfie and the Colonsay branch of Clan MacNeil. It is steeped is history that stretches back millennia. In the 1990s, a dig uncovered evidence of large-scale hazelnut shelling that was carbon-dated from some 7,000 years ago. Similar sites have been uncovered in Surrey as well as on the Isle of Man, but the Colonsay site is unrivaled. In more recent times – we’re going back just over 500 years now – hill forts and churches were built by islanders and some remains can be seen and found today.

Much of the island is a working estate. The current owner, Alex Howard, lives on Colonsay with his wife and family. It is very much a family run business, with a number of his family involved day to day management. The ‘big house’ dates from 1722 and is built on the  site of Kiloran Abbey by the MacNeills – the successive lairds of Colonsay until Alex’s family bought it more than a century ago.

But this is no ordinary estate – if such a a things exists. Colonsay may be rooted in the past, but the estate’s plans have a vision for the island’s future. The land is farmed and managed with the principle aim of preserving the environment rather than for production. Alex says: “We are working closely with environmental bodies such as Scottish Natural Heritage, RSPB Scotland and the Scottish Forestry Commission to preserve natural habitats for birds, mammals and wildflowers.

As a result, the historic need for farm properties is significantly diminished – a factor affecting estates across the country. The estate has an ongoing programme of restoration and renovation that ensures old houses across the island are maintained and used to help sustain Colonsay.

There are 16 fully restored self-catering holiday properties – from crofters’ cottages, Victorian farmhouses and former estate houses. The accommodation provided ranges from a cosy cottage for 2 to a celebratory 14. Scattered all over the island, most have stunning sea views – and some are incredibly remote providing a genuine getaway. Some are much more accessible – clustered in woodland around Colonsay House – and there are even apartments in a south facing wing of the house where you can stay.

The estate also owns and manages the island’s only hotel (below) – on the hillside overlooking the harbour. It has a lovely deck and garden where you can enjoy alfresco dining and drinks. Non residents are very welcome and they have a a restaurant that’s “more gastro-pub than formal dining“. It became a regular stop for coffee and hot chocolates during our time on the island …

And there’s a backpakers’ bunkhouse – ensuring a diverse mix of accommodation to suit all expectations and budgets. But not all properties are the estate’s. There are others owned and managed by those on the island – as well as those who have fallen in love with it and bought their own bolt hold for seasonal escapes. One such couple is Fin and Eileen Geekie. They self-built their home on Colonsay after relocating to the island from Oxfordshire in 2016. They launched Wild Thyme Spirits to make “premium artisan spirits” and today, they moved production to the remote Hebridean island.

Fin explains: “Our first product, Colonsay Gin, has until now been made at one of Scotland’s smallest distilleries, Strathearn in Perthshire. We are so excited to be bringing production home to the island.” The first island batch – named Wild Thyme 909 – is a limited edition bottling of their award winning original. The gin is distilled with seven botanicals – juniper, angelica root, calamus root, liquorice root, orange peel, orris root and coriander seeds – and they’ve negotiated an exclusive agreement with the Colonsay Estate to hand-forage for botanicals on the island, including access to the gardens and grounds of Colonsay House.

The Geekies also offer a Gin Lover’s Retreat package: Eileen says: “It allows guests to unwind and enjoy all things gin whilst fully embracing the island experience.” The package includes full board, cocktails on arrival, a formal gin tasting and access to the couple’s collection of gins from around the world.

And as we mentioned – this is one of two gins bearing the Colonsay name. Wild Island Botanic Gin is an offshoot from the already successful Colonsay Brewery.

The Gin is crafted from a complex mix of 16 botanicals – Mediterranean lemon peel, orange peel, juniper, coriander, Angelica, Orris root, liquorice, nutmeg, cassia and cinnamon bark infused with wild island botanicals including lemon balm, meadowsweet, wild water mint, heather flowers, bog myrtle and sea buckthorn.We visited the brewery – you can’t miss it! A great welcome and tasters of gins offered (and accepted) including a stunning distillers cut that included the famous Colonsay honey. Simply delicious. Their beers are great too. Not easy creating a micro-brewery on a remote island some  two-and-a-half hours from the Scottish mainland, but they’ve done it … and with some style. The Pig’s Paradise Blonde has become a particular favourite: named after a remote sheltered cliff-top on Colonsay,it is packed with citrus refreshment and perfect for long, hot summer days … on islands or mainland!

We visited Colonsay House to walk through the beautiful gardens and to enjoy a scrumptious lunch in their tea room – the rhubarb meringue cake was sensational!

The gardens have been established over decades and boast one of Scotland’s best collections of rhododendrons, although they’ve adopted a programme of eradication to rid the island of the invasive Rhododendron Ponticum.

Beyond the house and gardens, the estate has several designated SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest). They graze black face sheep and have a herd of Highland cattle at Garvard – heading south to Oronsay. The estate works in conjunction with RSPB Scotland ensuring they employ corncrake and chough-friendly farming. Complimenting the estate’s environmental work in looking after both flora and fauna across both moorland and coastal areas is a growing commitment to environmental protection. A member of the Green Tourism Scheme, the estate is committed to the principles of sustainable tourism.

Alex says: “We recycle wherever possible and try to use eco-friendly and energy saving methods wherever we can. Our properties are run in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way wherever possible.” To this end, there are several projects being developed that will have a significant, positive impact on Colonsay’s sustainability of the island.

Alex explains: “We have built a medium size 100kW wind turbine which will supply up to 7 households and a number of holiday cottages with electricity. We have installed a number of electric charging points on the island (one at the pier) and we are committed to moving towards electric vehicles in our business.“As a major piece of the island’s sustainable jigsaw, the estate is also working on the development of a complex of affordable housing, not only with a view to attract  key workers to move to the island but also to provide sheltered housing for elderly residents.

Yes, this is an exceptional island: a community that’s working hard to promote all it has to offer – year round. In such a small area, there’s a wealth of things to see and do. Undoubtedly designed for those who love the outdoors, there’s plenty of walking (we walked to Balnahard Beach and Ardskenish (below right) – both fabulous walks) and cycling (there are so few vehicles, the roads are really safe). Then there’s the wildlife: we swam with seals at Machrins Bay – and the island has over 190 species of birds and 500 species of local flora.

There’s also a wee golf course, the community’s Heritage Centre, the brewery and a book shop (pictured below) as well as lovely arts and crafts at The Old Waiting Room.

Incredibly, Colonsay boasts more festivals than any other island! Each year they have a rollinmg calendar that includes a Book Festival (April), a Festival of Spring (in May), a Rugby Festival in July then a Folk Festival (coming up in September) followed by an Autumn Food and Drink festival (October). Through the summer, the hotel holds a weekly quiz night on Thursdays (open to all) and the village hall hosts a weekly Ceilidh (Saturday night – pictured mid left below) all in aid of the island’s heritage fund.

The Colonsay Pantry – celebrating 30 years of family business – is a great destination. Gavin and his team are really welcoming – and their food and drinks offering is great. We enjoyed their Seafood Night (above right) on the Wednesday of our stay (you have to book) with fantastic mussels, scallops, prawns, hot smoked salmon and crab. There’s also a general store stocked with pretty much everything you might need on a visit: we discovered on our visit that they have a link with the Co-Op which means you can pre-order provisions to be ready for your arrival. We’d very much do so next time.

This was our third visit: it is fair to say we have fallen for Colonsay. The spirit of the place is unique – and the community is a trailblazer for how islands can work together to showcase the very best that Scotland has to offer.

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We stayed at Mo Dhachaidh Cottage at Uragaig, overlooking the breathtaking Kiloran Bay with uninterrupted views of The Isle of Mull and over to Iona – and you have the benefit of Walter and Queenie as neighbours! Owned by Paul & Morven Summers, the whole property was upgraded in 2015/16 and provides a great holiday home for up to 6. You can check their avialability and book via this link.

Coming up …

11th Colonsay Folk Festival (12th to 16th September 2018) & Autumn Food and Drink Festival (10th to 24th October 2018)

Thanks for reading!