My Colonsay moment happened on the side of a road. At 5pm.I lay down on the Heather that covered the verge. It was a soft pillow and I closed my eyes. Buzzing insects, a distant sheep baa, my own breathing- the only sounds. I could smell grass, flowers, a hint of sea air. I felt that I could stay here for hours, even days and it would be the same; nothing would happen. It would always be tranquil. This is why we come to these islands, for these moments.
My trip to Colonsay began with the afternoon ferry from Oban. We pulled away from the bustling harbour, the town's skyline of grand Victorian hotels soon disappeared and it was just the sea and a horizon of hills and islands. There is a feeling of leaving behind the familiar and heading to distant lands.
On arrival I made straight for the restaurant at the island’s hotel. The sofas, wooden floors and fireplaces were a cosy introduction . My 80 Shilling from Colonsay Brewery tasted like a Scottish island in a bottle with it’s peat infusion. My Cajun chicken burger was delicious, but I felt unadventurous compared to the family at the next table who were tucking into oysters and crab claws. The parents were having a conversation with another family who said that they had been coming to Colonsay every year for the last 15. I heard someone else say that they were staying two weeks. I was getting the impression that this is an island people love to spend time on.
I was staying in the hotel's bunkhouse, 2 miles away. It was getting dark as I started pedaling. I was beginning to doubt that I was going the right way when a Massey Ferguson tractor pulled over and the driver, with bushy white moustache asked "where you aiming for?" He was friendly and told me "you are going the right way. Keep going until you get to the public hall, then turn right."
There are no staff at the bunkhouse and no locked doors. You just walk in and find your bed. It's all very trusting, this easy going island way of doing things. It seemed that I had the place to myself, but a little later on two women turned up who had been to a ceilidh. "It was packed, full of kids, old people. The whole community were there." They were beaming from their experience and "in love with Colonsay."
The Colonsay Hotel
The bar of The Colonsay Hotel
The next morning I pointed the handlebars in the direction of Kiloran Bay. This has a curving golden beach with rocky promontories surrounding it. This is Colonsay's showstopper, the place where everyone goes. However, the bay is so massive that it absorbs people and I never got close enough to see the faces of the others enjoying the sands. A small car park and a couple of bins are the only sign of development. Cows freely wander the beach, their hoof prints on the sand. The sound of the water licking the shore, its gentle rhythm and the immensity of the open sea ahead- I love this.
The very steep, twisty road that heads to the west provides a stunning aerial view of the bay. The road is so-little used that there was a strip of grass growing down the middle. It took me to a gate with a sign stating that this footpath leads to a beach. I left the bike and walked across muddy grass; I could feel water entering my shoes. I arrived at a pebble beach with two Highland Cows munching the grass, unperturbed by my presence. They must just stay here hour after hour in this spot. I sat on a rock with lines and swirls through it. I moved my palm over it and it was so smooth, not a single cut or jagged part. There was an old rope and a bit of drift wood with a rusty nail next to my rock. All that I could hear was lapping water and flapping wings of birds overhead. The sun was warming my face. I watched the cows and the sea and could think of no reason to leave this place.
The path to the pebble beach with the Highland Cows
Highland Cow on Colonsay
Standing stone on Colonsay
Sheep on the road on Colonsay
The gap between ferry departures means that rushing around Colonsay is unnecessary. I spent the rest of the day slowly pedaling along the quiet roads, making frequent stops. One of my lasting memories will be that the loudest noise was my tyres spinning on the tarmac. I came across few vehicles and the houses that I passed had no sign of life. I stopped by a gate with a handwritten sign- 'Foot Path to Standing Stones.' I walked through ankle-high grass to reach two monoliths that are the last remains of a stone circle. They are known as 'Fingal's Limpet Hammers' as they have the appearance of the tool that was used to detach limpets from rocks. I felt their surface, crusty with moss, and imagined the others who have put their hands here through the centuries.
Scalasaig is the main settlement on the island. This is where the ferry arrives and departs. I negotiated a path through a dozen sheep to get inside the parish church. It is gleaming white with fine Georgian architectural features, particularly the large round windows that let light flood in. The pews were laid with second-hand books that you could buy by popping a £1 coin into an honesty box. There is also a book shop in Scalasaig where the bookseller, with a polka dot bow tie, was informing a customer of an upcoming sale of secondhand philosophy works. Next door is the Colonsay Brewery where I picked up some bottles of 'Pig's Paradise' named for a place on the island where the pigs shelter from Atlantic storms and chomp on wildflowers.
For a moment I started to worry that I would run out of things to do until the ferry departure. That was before I lay my head down on the Heather by the side of the road. Colonsay forces you into tranquility, to slow down, to clear your mind. That's a rare and special thing. Cities are a sensory overload with their sirens, crowds and fumes. Islands are also a sensory overload, of a different kind, where you are immersed all day in silence, big spaces with no people and sea air. It's just as overwhelming as the city experience, but in a way that makes you cry at how beautiful it is.
Getting there The Caledonian MacBrayne ferry takes around 2 hours and 20 minutes to travel from Oban to Colonsay. The ferry service is more frequent in summer. Most of the departures from Oban are late afternoon and the departures from Colonsay are in the evening. This means an overnight stay is necessary on the island, but that is a good thing as this is a beautiful place. However, if you can really only afford a day there is also ferry service from the Island of Islay that gives you about 6 hours on Colonsay. Check the ferry website for current timetables.
Cycling distances and terrain Colonsay has around 12 miles of road. There is no traffic. There are some hills, nothing too serious apart from the road to the west of Kiloran Bay which is a tough climb.
The Colonsay Hotel is the only hotel on the island. It has eight stylish and comfortable rooms, some with sea views. The restaurant is a great place to try local seafood and the bar with its fire place a cosy spot to try local beer and gin. The hotel also runs the backpacker's lodge, where I stayed. There are also a large number of self-catering cottages on the island.
The cake cabinet in The Colonsay Pantry is where you will find the island's best homebaking. This friendly cafe is just a couple of hundred yards from the ferry pier. The Pantry also provides evening meals on selected nights- check their website for the current offering.