Colonsay

On a small island, the feeble purchase that the land obtains between the sea and the sky, the drifting of mist and the intensity of light, unsettles the intellect and opens the imagination to larger and more liquid configurations.

(From the poem Riasg Buile by Thomas A Clarke)

Our recent five day sojourn here was well spent. Lazing, walking the shores and hills, dining out at the hotel and pantry, swimming at Kiloran Bay (above), or exploring the environs surrounding Colonsay house where we were staying, in the former nursery, with a view over the extensive sheltered gardens & woods.

Colonsay is home to some 130 permanent residents, with we visitors coming mainly from Oban, a two hour ferry trip away. The elongated isle measures roughly 10 miles by two and lies west of mountainous Jura, out of the highland rain shadow and along with the island of Tiree it enjoys Scotland’s highest number of sunshine hours. An avian paradise, with more than 100 breeding species of birds and many more visiting. Its extended mild climate, non intensive agriculture and range of environments makes for interesting and diverse plantlife.

The winding high track from Kiloran over three miles to Balnahard Bay took in some distinct and thrilling sights. The wild goats we caught grazing on the mountain side above us are reputed to be descended from animals that came ashore from a wrecked Spanish vessel, part of the invading armada in 1588. Later we saw a golden eagle perched on the ridge, surveying the scene below before lifting off and circling, its massive wingspan not failing to impress.

A lively flock of twites accompanied us along the approach through new mown meadows to Balnahard farm. Seed eating finches, often confused with linnets, they’re a bird of the Celtic fringes, little seen outside the north Wales and west of Scotland coasts where they live and breed all year round.

A section of the rough farm track we followed had ditches and rough grazing lined with bog myrtle. Common in the highlands, if rarer elsewhere, this dwarf deciduous shrub thrives in wet acid soils and supports many insects. More importantly its distinctive smell and antibacterial properties have seen it used traditionally to help deter midges! These days its essential oils are a key ingredient in skin conditioners and soaps. (An alternative name is sweet myrtle). 

Machair is the Gaelic term for low lying coastal land. Formed from sand and shell fragments, it is the mainstay of traditional crofting agriculture in the Hebrides. A unique habitat and one of the rarest in Europe. A delight then for us to discover some less common flowers there, most of which we’ve had to look up in identifying. No bad thing of course in extending knowledge and awareness!

Bugloss. Half the size of, and with smaller flowers than, its more exotic sibling Viper’s Bugloss. Apparently packed with alkaloids too so rather poisonous. A member of the borage family and distinctly bristly the leaves resemble an ox’s tongue; hence its name origin, from the Greek. Love the pretty sky blue flowers nevertheless.

Common Storksbill. Attractive pink flowers and a typical member of the Geranium family with distinctively long pods like a crane or storks bill that will eventually explode, scattering the seeds within some distance. A sprawling, low lying plant with finely divided fern like leaves it is the main food plant of both  common and brown argus butterflies. 

Scarlet Pimpernel. Once a common weed of arable land around the UK this member of the primrose family is now a rarer sight due to modern intensive agricultural practices. This one’s flowers are more salmon pink than the bright red seen elsewhere. The other common name I remember from childhood days is ‘shepherd’s weatherglass’ on account of the plant’s responding to atmospheric pressure in closing up its flowers on the approach of bad weather.

Hawkbit is a cheery ubiquitous presence in the grassland by the coast as well as inland.

Red Bartsia, An attractive small plant suffused in redish pink which thrives in the well drained low fertility soils of the machair. Maybe even more so, as it is also semi-parasitic, feeding on the roots of grasses.

There are no snakes, moles, squirrels, hedgehogs, foxes, stoats, weasels, badgers, frogs, toads or deer…but there are lots of rabbits, with fewer predators to control them, and their presence in the sandy soils is obvious in many places.

We came away with samples of Colonsay’s finest home produced products, along with gin, whiskey and honey. It’s perhaps no surprise that as this nature rich and temperate isle has over 50% of UK flower species present it makes for a fabulous diversity and range of nectar for bees over an extended period. Best of all the producers here have some 50 colonies of the native black bees, an officially protected species in Scotland. Hardier and more adaptable than the yellow or Italian species on the mainland these bees are perfectly adapted to and thrive on the conditions here. The rich produce of their labours speaks for itself, as we can testify!

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