Hiking through rain, wind and (eventually) sunshine, Rough Guides writer Ken Wallingford discovers a too-often forgotten island where straying off the beaten path is the only way to trek. Here’s an account of his journey on Colonsay, Scotland.
As the ferry from Oban approaches Colonsay, a hazy ceiling of mist hangs over our heads. Beyond the coastline a rugged and hilly landscape disappears into a livid sky making it impossible to decipher what’s beyond the grey houses clumped along the shore.
On a map, Colonsay is so small it’s hard to spot. The 40 square-kilometre piece of terrain is a blip compared to the better-known Hebridean isles like Jura and Islay. For adventurers and tourists, the destination provides respite, inspiration and a world of choose-your-own adventures. A population of 130 permanent residents allows for plenty of space to cultivate the land, and each corner of the island offers more to discover. For botanists, history-buffs and trekkers, everything is accessible by bike and foot, and while guided tours are available in the summer, we prefer to choose our own route.
Within an hour of landing ashore, we’re biking north past a long lake and rolling hills dotted with grazing sheep before reaching the island estate. Surrounded by woodlands filled with eucalyptus and palm trees, and rhododendrons of fuchsia and red, the Colonsay Estate also houses fruit and vegetable gardens. Through the summer the isle’s only hotel restaurant uses the bounty of the gardens to design their seasonal menu.
Further along the main road we come to Kiloran Bay, an expansive beach surrounded by more green hills dotted with sheep. We inspect the area for the mysterious caves we’re told exist here, but have no luck finding them—the tide, perhaps, is too high to spot the mouth of the cave. We’re completely alone here, and I only realise the beauty of that fact when I’m later told that even in the height of the summer you’ll rarely cross paths with other tourists on any of the numerous beaches.
Farther north we search for mountain goats. Only a small band of them exist on the island whose ancestors are said to have arrived here via a sixteenth century Spanish shipwreck. Spotting them from among the sheep isn’t hard as their horns stand erect instead of curling in a loop.
We face more of Colonsay’s wildlife the next day when we spot several seals basking on rocks by the one kilometre-long beach on Ardskenish, a finger-shaped peninsula in the south west. We take our bikes across an eighteenth century golf course and leave them leaning on a weathered wooden fence, before climbing over a rocky cliff down to the beach. It’s low tide, so we slip out on wet rocks and seaweed to spy on the seals as they alternate between basking in the sun and sliding into the water to cool off. They radiate contentment and I yearn for the same.
On our third day, we head south across the Strand, a kilometre-and-a-half walk across a sandy isthmus connecting Colonsay to Oronsay. It’s from the hilltop on this tiny landmass where we spot the farmlands where corncrakes and choughs breed and wild flowers grow. At the base of the hill, we wander through some of Colonsay and Oronsay’s oldest ruins, a fourteenth century Augustinian stone priory.
It’s a clear day and we can see the mountains of Islay and Jura rise out of the ocean to the south. The view is hard to part from, but since the Strand can only be crossed within two hours of low tide, we hurry back.
It’s while crossing over when we spot, for the first time since arriving here, the beehive boxes. There are about 50 colonies of the legally-protected British Black Bees throughout the island, and with the lack of chemicals used in farming here, untouched wildflowers (normally destroyed by factory farming) thrive, giving the honey the bees produce a unique taste with hints of lavender and thyme.
It’s not until our last day, shortly before our departure, when we taste the honey at the Pantry café. The small restaurant sits slightly uphill, apart from the other businesses (the microbrewery, the bookshop, art gallery, and convenience store) in the port village of Scalasaig.
We sit down at the café for a bite of berry crumble drizzled with a thick layer of local honey. With the first spoonful of dessert I fall in love with the taste of the honey. By the second, I’ve sold my soul, or at least I’ve bought a precious gold-filled jar. I’ll bring it home and cherish it for months, a sweet reminder of a tiny island that’s too often forgotten.