The Tide Table posted in the Estate Office gave low tide times for each day in September and also spelt out when the crossing could be made safely each way – in our case, we could set out from 10am(with lowest tide at 11.30am) but had to return by 1pm latest. We were lucky because during the previous 4 days it had been impossible to access the island due to very high tides. So, we had 3 hours to enjoy the island or risk being stranded for over 10hrs.
Chris reckoned we could try setting off at little earlier at 9.30am, hoping that the areas of water which remain all the time would be shallow enough to wade through. The Estate offered wellies for guests to use so we picked a couple of pairs, reckoning they were perfect for negotiating a tidal strand and far better than our hiking boots. A good decision as it turned out.
There was only one other car at the parking area when we set off across the wet sand, following the tyre tracks of the Postal Van which makes the crossing every day and which marks the easiest route. On Oronsay itself there is also a tall post with a wee reflector (for vehicles crossing in the dark!) which helps you set your course too.
There’s something quite special (and slightly stressful) about setting off to reach a tidal island, knowing time is very limited. We were wading almost immediately and this continued on and off, the water halfway up our wellies in places. But in 15 mins we were across and had caught up with another couple, the lady having crossed in walking boots which were now absolutely soaking. Her husband had open sandals on bare feet, much more practical. Chatted briefly and she nodded towards my own footwear – ‘that’s what I need!’ she announced, clearly annoyed at her own wet feet which is never a good start to a walk. We planked the wellies behind a rock further along the shore and out of sight – valuable commodities in this environment! Then on with the walking boots, much more comfortable for the 10km circular walk that lay ahead but useless for the crossing.
It was now a perfect, early autumn day of sunshine and blue skies, the landscape already turning tawny and gold. Oronsay has swathes of flattish grasslands and machair and is ringed by some lovely white shell sand beaches. It’s a very arable island – the monks knew good land when they saw it. It all looked very much like the Uists, a landscape which I always find inspiring and closest to my heart. The island is owned by an American lady but managed by the RSPB and although we were too late in the season, Corncrake breed (but had now headed off for southern climes) and there are also Choughs. We were lucky though in spotting a Peregrine Falcon near the Priory, racing across the sky but quite low down, as if on the hunt. Chris also saw a Merlin which I missed and we both watched, briefly, a female Hen Harrier with her distinctive slightly jerky flight, dipping and rising again as she looked for lunch – mice, voles or smaller birds.
A good track took us to Oronsay Farm and the ancient Priory itself, where we explored the superb collection of 14th century buildings and two Celtic carved crosses, one of which was over 3m high. One small building housed warrior grave slabs and slabs with the intricate carvings of past Priors. Absolutely fascinating.
The farm is where Oronsay’s 5 residents live and it is a beautiful collection of stone buildings in itself – complete with duck pond! If only more farms looked as handsome and pristine as this.
Off we set for the beach, through gates marked in yellow that helpfully signposted the correct route through fields of cows, sheep and crops.The white sands were glorious to arrive on with Islay visible on the far horizon, another sight that made me long a bit for that island too! We’d had such a wonderful 5 days on there in August. The bay is called Port na Luinge – translating as Port of the Galley, as in an ancient ship. We found a sheltered corner at the far end out of the decidedly cold wind, passing a poor wee seal pup, drowned, which had washed up on the shore, still in its creamy white coat.
Tea from the flask and good coronation chicken sandwiches which Chris had made up that morning from last night’s roast chicken. An idyllic spot, utterly peaceful and unspoiled. Columba is believed to have landed on Oronsay but because he could still see Ireland (just visible on a very clear day apparently) he set sail again until he reached Iona.
It was lovely easy walking on flat grass, up by a nice little Bothy above the beach then across to another longer strand of shell sand where we could hear Grey Atlantic seals singing, something very reminiscent of walking on Islay’s beaches.
There can be up to 1,000 seals breeding in Oronsay’s myriad offshore skerries and islets. Their soft high pitched moaning was the only sound here, apart from the soft crunch of the surf. A nice stone cottage – appropriately named Seal Cottage on the map – sat behind the beach on the machair though a careful peek inside revealed it to be empty. I was getting slightly nervous about the time now at 12noon as we still had to make our way back to the main track so off we headed up a grassy path, past a ‘shell midden’ marked on the map, left by the Mesolithic people who once lived here and evidence that the island was lived in 7,000 years ago.
Back near the marker post at The Strand, Chris headed off to the rocks to retrieve our hidden wellies and off we set back to the car. I’d almost forgotten how much fun it is to deliberately splash through water – 62 years of age going on 6! No wonder children can’t resist it – I still couldn’t!
There were quite a few other cars parked now – some a distance away – so we’d been right to get there early. That said, we only saw 2 couples, the whole time we were there.
A final thrill as we drove off when a Golden Eagle broke the skyline of a low ridge to our left. I was amazed to see it, not imagining that tiny Colonsay had the terrain or concentration of prey to sustain such a bird. But then, Mull is not that far away and it has one of the highest densities of breeding Golden Eagles in Europe. And then a second bird appeared, soaring over the ridge and joining its sibling or partner. What a sight! We did wonder whether they were Sea Eagles, which are more common, but the photos I managed (such as they were, not sharp) revealed the golden head.
It was 12.30pm now, lunch had been demolished early and a little climb up Colonsay’s highest hill was now in prospect.We would need a bit of extra energy for that so it was time to return to Colonsay Estate’s Garden Café and sample my favourite snack of the day – home-made cake!
The Garden Café is a lovely wee set up which seems to draw people from all over Colonsay – usually a sign of good food and cakes! We sat on the terrace , sheltered from the nippy wind and enjoying the glorious warmth of the late Sept sunshine. It’s a delightful place altogether and even more so was their (huge) Millionaire’s Shortbread which Chris demolished and my Chocolate Fudge cake. Definitely homemade, excellent stuff.
A final little effort awaited this afternoon – the hopefully short clamber up Carnan Eoin or The Rocky Top of the Birds. Did more eagles await? We would soon see.
Next – Climbing Carnan Eoin A CLAMBER UP COLONSAY’S HIGHEST HILL (143m!)
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