The heading refers of course to Powell and Pressburger’s splendid 1945 romance starring Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesy. In I Know Where I’m Going, Joan Webster (Hiller) is a young, ambitious middle-class Englishwoman with an independent spirit. She knows where she’s going, or so she thinks. The film opens with Joan travelling from England to the Hebrides to marry Sir Robert Bellinger, a wealthy and much older industrialist, on the Isle of Kiloran.
Joan arrives on the Isle of Mull, but before she can take her boat to Kiloran, bad weather postpones the final leg of her journey. She has no choice but to wait out the storm among a community whose approach to life she finds quite perplexing. Joan soon meets Torquil MacNeil (Livesey), a handsome naval officer trying to get home to Kiloran on leave.
I’ll not tell you the rest, just in case you ever watch it. Anyway, the point of all this is that the fictional Isle of Kiloran is based on the very real and very lovely Isle of Colonsay – where I spent last week with Fiona, Giulia and Andy. The above picture is of the magnificent Kiloran Bay – spot the link! – taken from the summit of Carnan Eoin, Colonsay’s highest point – at a fairly modest 143 metres.
This is what the introductory blurb in my forthcoming guidebook has to say about Colonsay and Oronsay:
The word remote is often applied to Colonsay and Oronsay; they lie 15km west of Jura, some 40km west of the Argyll mainland, nine kilometres north of Islay and 25 km south of Mull. Westwards is the Atlantic, with only Dubh Artach lighthouse standing between Colonsay and Canada. However, the wild and rugged terrain one might expect in such an exposed situation forms only part of the picture. Though small, these islands possess great scenic variety; the moorland, hills and rocky outcrops of the interior overlook some remarkably verdant terrain, including tracts of indigenous woodland and exotic plantation, and a coastline garlanded with magnificent sandy bays, small coves, raised beaches, towering cliffs and outlying skerries.
From Walking on Jura, Islay and Colonsay, Cicerone Press 2010
Colonsay is a small, but perfectly formed gem of an island; it is both profoundly peaceful an intensely beautiful. Aside from walking, cycling, visiting ancient monuments, birdwatching, swimming, fishing, visiting the Gardens at Colonsay House and engaging in multifarious artistic pursuits… there’s very little to do. You get my point?
Unless you are disabled, very elderly or have very small children there is no point in taking a car to Colonsay. There is around ten miles of road, most of which describes a loop around the island, taking in the settlements at Scalasaig, Lower and Upper Kilchattan, Kiloran, Uragaig and Glassard. You’re doing well if you find yourself more than five miles from somewhere else you want to be. Cycling is arguably the best mode of transport if you’re visiting the islands. A bike is also useful for getting to a number of places that aren’t accesible by car. Bring your own bike – which goes free on the ferry – or hire one on the island. One thing to remember though – on the single-track road always give way to oncoming cars or let cars behind you overtake by means of the many passing places. Some motorists imagine that this isn’t a two way transaction, but they can be reminded politely. Mountain bikes are good for the island’s farm tracks and beach crossings and, frankly, the roads, which aren’t always smooth asphalt surfaces. Near the end of our stay, Giulia took a tumble on some loose tarmac and took a deep gouge out of her elbow. Ouch. As the doctor said – always wear a helmet!
We had great weather for the whole trip, except one day of dense mist. However, that was the day we visited the sea cliffs at Pigs Paradise and the mist leant the place a certain eerie charm. Most of the time the weather was exactly like it is in the picture below. Because it is generally low-lying and has few hills of any size, Colonsay is the sunniest place in Scotland after the even lower-lying Isle of Tiree, rain clouds tend to swoop over on their way to the hills of Jura, Islay and the mainland. Even if the weather’s not great, Colonsay is a good place to be as you’re never far from wherever your temporary home is. At a combined length of 15km and five kilometres across the widest point, Colonsay and its tide-separated sister island of Oronsay are actually small enough to circumnavigate on foot in two days.
However, if walking is your thing, you’ll probably want to take more time to do this marvellous island justice . There is so much of interest to detain you along the way. The plentiful birdlife, abundant flora, numerous ancient monuments, fantastic coastline and glorious beaches should be enough to keep most people occupied for a while.
In a break with writesofway tradition, I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account of what we did all week, instead I’ll outline several suggestions of good ways to spend some time on the island for the outdoor-oriented.
A walk along Colonsay’s Atlantic sea cliffs
This section of Colonsay’s west coast can be walked as an out and return route or as part of a longer circular route from Lower Kilchattan to Scalasaig around the north of the island via Kiloran Bay and Balnahard Bay.
Starting from the B8086 between Lower and Upper Kilchattan, take the farm track to Gortain and then follow the path to the impressive V-shaped valley that drops towards the cliffs above Leumm a’ Bhriair. Descend a little through the valley before contouring around to the north-east where you will soon be looking down on the obliquely pitched promontory of Meall Lamalum.
This is a fine walk along a dramatic stretch of coastline with great views in fine weather. Highlights include the sea cliffs below Pigs Paradise, which are home to thousands upon thousands of nesting seabirds including razorbills, guillemots, fulmars, cormorants, shags and kittiwakes. As well as the abundant seabirds, peregrines, merlins and choughs are also seen in this area. The Meall Lamalum promontory below Pigs Paradise is also good place to watch the nesting seabirds from. Here you will also find a simple yet impressive monument to the victims of a terrible disaster
[O]n the clifftop above Leum a’ Bhriair there is a cairn and plaque commemorating Giuseppe Delgrosso, whose body was found washed ashore here by islanders during the last war. Delgrosso was an Italian civilian who was among more than 800 victims drowned when the Arandora Star was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland when transporting internees to Canada on July 2nd 1940. There were 1673 passengers and crew aboard the Arandora Star, including a 200 man military escort, 479 German internees, 86 German POWs and 734 Italians, many of whom had been resident in Scotland and were rounded-up after Italy had allied herself to the Axis powers in June 1940.
The Arandora Star set sail for Canada without convoy, dangerously overloaded and with lifeboat capacity for only 500. Furthermore, she was painted battleship grey with no Red Cross or other means of identification, giving her the appearance of a troop carrier – a target no U-boat commander would refuse. Many of those who drowned were caught in an oil slick from the stricken vessel. Survivors were picked up by two Allied destroyers. Some of them were subsequently transported to Australia. The remains of most of those who perished were never recovered, though a small number were eventually washed ashore on Colonsay, including Giuseppe Delgrosso who was buried in the cemetery at Lower Kilchattan.
From Walking on Jura, Islay and Colonsay, Cicerone Press, 2010
From Meall Lamalum, find a route up to the summit of Beinn Bhreac (130m), which dominates this section of the coast and gives commanding views in every direction. Continuing north-east from Beinn Bhreac, you will arrive at the splendid Port nam Fliuchan bay at the neck of the Uragaig peninsula after a further 2km. The beach at Port nam Fliuchan is great to swim from in calm conditions. It is also worth exploring Uragaig for its impressive natural arches and – during the summer months – its spectacular array of orchids.
Walking around the peninsula is a bit tricky on account of clifftop livestock fences, so when leaving Port nam Fliuchan, cut across the neck of the peninsula and then follow the track road through the scattering of houses at Uragig and Creagan. The road soon delivers you to the western end of the wonderful Kiloran Bay. You can end your walk here, return to Kilchattan or Scalasaig along the road or continue on around the coast (see below). This route and it’s variants are described in detail and accompanied by Ordnance Survey route maps in Walking on Jura, Islay and Colonsay.
Another option is to visit the wonderful gardens at nearby Colonsay House, Which are open to the public on Wednesdays and Fridays. Here’s a selection of images:
This charming fellow is an early Christian statue dating from the seventh or eighth century, which incorporates both Christian and pagan elements. The statue was removed from the burial ground at Riasg Buidhe on the east coast and brought to Colonsay House in 1870. Today, the statue stands by a well dedictae to Saint Oran and known as Tobar Oran.
A source of some embarrassment for me is that we discovered that this magnificent tree, from which Fiona is swinging so elegantly, is not a giant yew as I’ve claimed in the guidebook, but is in fact a Monterey cypress. Doh!
During our visit we also found several Andy Goldsworthy-esque artworks perched on the rocks around Machrins Bay.
Fiona spent a couple of happy hours making this rather lovely seashell heart on a beach at Ardskenish.
Wild coastlines, white sand bays and ancient forest
Another fine but sometimes challenging walk takes in the coastline around the north of the island from Kiloran Bay on the west coast to Scalasaig on the east coast. This walk is approximately 19km (12 miles) and will take around six hours to complete. The terrain is varied and includes sandy beaches, cliff tops, rocky coastline and woodland as well as Colonsay’s highest peak. The second half of the walk from Balnahard Bay to Scalasaig along the east coast is tough in places – much more so in summer when route-finding is made difficult by bracken cover. The walk is full of natural beauty and wonderful views with many interesting man-made structures along the way.
Walk north-east along the sublime sweep of sandy beach at Kiloran Bay. At its northern extremity, make for a stile across a low fenceFrom here, head straight up a damp gully opposite to join the track where it levels out by some overhead power lines Leave the track heading north-east up a grassy slope towards the col between Beinn Bheag and Carnan Eoin. Follow the path marked with small cairns that winds its way to the summit at 143m.
Atop Carnan Eoin sits a very large stone cairn and this makes for a splendid vantage point from which to enjoy superlative views over Kiloran Bay as well as Islay, Jura and Mull. Looking north-west to Port Sgibinis, a kilometre distant, you will see the curious Balnahard Whale, a 160m-long stone ‘sculpture’, which remains a work in progress and is not easily recognisable at ground level. Much of the whale’s front end is formed by a small raised beach appropriated for this purpose. Help to consolidate the whale’s tail-end by adding a stone when you descend.
Return to the track and continue along as it bends north and descends towards Port Sgibinis. Leaving the whale behind, it is possible, though a bit dull, to walk to Balnahard Bay along the remainder of the track road; however, a more interesting option is to continue along high ground around the coast to Eilean Dubh at Colonsay’s northern tip.
Eilean Dubh is not really an island as it is connected to the rest of Colonsay by a narrow isthmus. It is worth following the obvious gully down to the isthmus and exploring the wild, rocky promontory of Eilean Dubh. There is further opportunity to contribute to site-specific artworks as a rather striking structure fashioned from driftwood, flotsam and jetsam is taking shape here.
From Eilean Dubh, head back up the gully to level ground then headsouth-east until you come to a livestock fence. Cross the fence and descend to the machair-like meadow to the rear of Balnahard Bay, carpeted with wild flowers in spring and summer. Walk through the dunes and you will arrive on one of the planet’s loveliest beaches. On a sunny day Balnahard Bay is truly paradise with its expanse of white sand beach and clear turquoise waters; furthermore, there are fine views across the Firth of Lorn to the west coast of Jura, Scarba, the Garvellachs and Mull. The bay is more sheltered than Kiloran Bay, so between June and September there is no excuse for not taking a dip.
When you finally tear yourself away from Balnahard Bay, walk to its southern end and climb to a livestock fence. Follow the fence west towards the point at Rubh’ a’ Geodha and climb over where it terminates, butted up against a rocky outcrop. Once over the fence you are on a very wild section of coast that is very hard work to negotiate in summer on account of the heather and bracken cover. There are goat tracks along this stretch of coast, but they can be hard to follow or even find when the bracken is up. The shoreline as far as Port Araraibhne is largely unnavigable, but don’t be tempted to stray too far inland either. You may encounter wild goats along this stretch.
Once you have reached Port Araraibhne it should be possible to steer a course around the coast for some distance, although this involves negotiating several areas of rocky shoreline and improvising at times. Less than a kilometre further on you will encounter remnants of deciduous woodland above Rubha na Coille Bige including birch, oak, hazel and rowan. Several hundred metres to the south you will arrive at a burn that runs into Port a’ Bhuailtein; follow it upstream for a couple of hundred metres and you will find the ruins of Dùnan nan Nighean (little fort of the women) atop a rocky hillock. The name refers to the MacPhee chiefs’ custom of sending their expectant wives to the fort to give birth.
Leaving Dùnan nan Nighean behind, head south past the end of a dry-stone wall and gain a little height, skirting beneath the rocky face of Cnoc Mor Carraig nan Darrach. Descend towards the coast when feasible and you will soon arrive at a second woodland enclosure at Beinn nam Fitheach – a surviving remnant of native Hebridean forest. Keep to the seaward side of the enclosure and continue working your way along the coast, passing Eilean Olmsa and Port Olmsa.
Half a kilometre or so further on Riasg Buidhe (yellow marsh) will appear a few hundred metres inland. It is worth making the short detour to inspect the ruins of this small settlement, which was abandoned shortly after the Great War when the residents moved along the coast to Glassard. As well as a graveyard and a scattering of other buildings, a single long terrace of roofless stone-built cottages with vacant window and door frames lends the site an eerie atmosphere.
Return to the coast and pick up a vague path, which arrives at Glassard after less than a kilometre. Leave the coast and head above the line of houses to reach the B80807 for the last half a kilometre to Scalasaig. Alternatively, if you want to return to Kiloran, head west from Riasg Buidhe on a vague path arriving at the B8087 after 1.5km. Head north-west along the road for a few hundred metres, passing Turraman Loch. At the sharp bend, turn north-east along the track that passes Loch Fada and leads through the wooded grounds of Colonsay House and on to Kiloran Bay.
Detailed descriptions and Ordnance Survey route maps for this walk are included in Walking on Jura, Islay and Colonsay
Across The Strand to Oronsay
The extensively-plugged guidebook also includes a route description and maps for a walk from Scalasaig south along the west coast and over The Strand to Oronsay. Here, though, I am going to suggest an alternative route for visiting Oronsay by bike (the route is only suitable for mountain bikes or bikes with tough wheel rims and off-road tyres).
Firstly, however, you need to know when you can cross to Oronsay and how long for. Oronsay is seperated from Colonsay by a wide tidal inlet – The Strand – and it is safe to cross between one hour and up to three hours either side of low tide. Ask Keith Rutherford at the Colonsay Post Office for the latest tide tables or purchase tide tables from Nancy Black of Oban (01631 562550). Oronsay is an RSPB nature reserve so dogs must be kept on a lead at all times.
Set off from the car park above the beach at Machrins, allowing an hour and a half to reach The Strand. Follow the track across the golf course (!) and pass the end of the airstrip – sometimes known as Colonsay International Airport! Follow the grassy track around the perimeter fence before turning south, crossing a burn and then passing through a dry stone wall. The track becomes more distinct though it can be very boggy in places. Obvious detours avoid the worst of the bogginess. The track passes between rocky knolls before emerging above the glorious beaches on the north-western side of the Ardskenish peninsula.
Plot a course south through the dunes using the tangle of criss-crossing paths before arriving at a new livestock fence above the south-eastern edge of Ardskenish. Lift your bike over and continue south-east across the wide sandy expanse of Traigh nam Barc (when it’s low tide on The Strand it will also be low tide here). Pick up the track on the far side and continue south-east, climbing a little over Cnoc Eibriginn. Pass through a gate before arriving at .a junction in front of a byre near the farm at Garvard. Turn right, continuing south-east and descend, passing through a gate, to arrive on The Strand. Follow the cairns that will lead you on to the main ‘track’ heading south-west across The Strand to Oronsay. The crossing is about 1.5km and you can expect a few inches of sea water near the Oronsay side.
Once over on Oronsay, there is a good track that leads to the island’s 14th century Augustinian Priory. You can follow this all the way, but there is a detour worth making down to the east coast. From The Strand, the track climbs gently south-west for half a kilometre before turning south and descending for the same distance. The track then turns south-west again following the course of a wall. At this point, pass through a gate in the wall and follow the track south, then south-east down to Seal Cottage, which sits just above a remarkable stretch of white sandy beaches.
Seal Cottage is owned by the Oronsay Estate and is really worth a look. Although the cottage is not open to the public, the large, arched, many-paned window to the seaward side allows views into the beautiful sitting room – a maritime fantasia adorned with a scallop shell-framed mirror, glass float and wrought iron chandelier, whale bones and driftwood.
From Seal Cottage you can potter along on the various grassy tracks and loop around to the priory, which is well worth a visit. However, be aware of nesting birds! To return to Colonsay from the priory, just follow the track back to The Strand. Once back at The Strand, you can either retrace your route to Machrins or head across the tidal flat to join the B8085, which intersects with the B8086 after 3km. The B8086 will also take you back to Machrins and all points beyond or along to Scalasaig.