Continued from last Saturday
If you read anything about the island of Colonsay you probably won’t get far without a reference to ‘the Scottish Highlands and Islands in miniature’. A cursory assessment from the deck of the ferry, followed by a twenty-minute drive around the island’s only single-track loop road showed why it had earned the epithet. Colonsay is about eight miles long and three wide, on average, and yet it has a little of almost every broad habitat the Highlands has to offer. Inland, it is dominated by low, rocky hills and open moorland – an intimate patchwork of dry heathland and treacherous waterlogged bogs as I later discovered when venturing out on foot.
The highest point is 143m, very much a mini-mountain in Scottish terms, yet more than enough to get the blood pumping and provide a spectacular view over the island and its surroundings. Much of the coastline is made up of low, wild rocky shore but there are also sections of sheer cliffs, swarming with seabirds in the breeding season, as well as contrasting long, wide sandy beaches. There are extensive dunes, salt-marshes and on the strand between Colonsay and its smaller neighbour Oransay, to the south, an expanse of wader-friendly sand flats. There is also an area of planted woodland around the estate’s main house – a mix of conifers and broadleaves, including some impressively large trees.
Natural deciduous woodland is a habitat that would once have dominated the Highlands. Swathes of impenetrable woods and scrub would have greeted early human visitors to the region. After centuries of felling, burning, and grazing by livestock and deer, it has largely disappeared, but even here, Colonsay comes good. There is a sizeable wood of mixed native trees above the eastern shoreline that has somehow survived, offering a magical contrast with the more typical, but less natural, open landscape across the rest of the island.
For a small island, Colonsay presents huge contrasts over relatively small distances in other aspects as well as habitats. The west-facing coast is exposed to the vastness of the open Atlantic ocean and the prevailing westerly wind. Even on a calm day the swell rolls in relentlessly, each wave sending up white plumes of spray as it meets immovable rock, or plunging down onto the beach as it finally expires. The eastern side is more protected and sheltered. Here the sea may be almost completely calm and flat. Point a telescope out to sea on the east coast, even on a breezy day, and you may notice groups of Eider bobbing offshore and perhaps pick out mergansers, or divers of any of our three common species. Try the same thing, on the same day, on the west coast and even if you can hold the telescope steady on its tripod, the birds will be all but impossible to see. No doubt they are there but they are hidden away amongst the troughs and peaks of the waves, and the wind-thrown white-caps.
There is another contrast too. While nowhere on Colonsay could be described as busy with people, if you visit the largest of the sandy beaches at Kiloran or the strand between Colonsay and Oransay, which is walkable at low tide, you are likely to have at least some company as you head off for your stroll. But walk away from the road inland, or set out across the moorland to the coastline away from roads and paths, and you will soon be walking in a remote, wild landscape with few signs of humanity and almost no chance of seeing another soul. That sort of experience is increasingly hard to find in Britain, particularly in areas rich in wildlife and it’s something that has always been important to me in my wildlife watching.
We found our cottage, tucked away in a fold of land at the end of a long track across rough, sheep-grazed moorland. It was in the south-east of the island, looking out over the sea and across the sound to the remote, uninhabited, western coastline of Jura. A welcoming ‘ring-tail’ Hen Harrier cruised past a few hundred yards away not long after we arrived, hugging the contours; constantly adjusting and readjusting its flight path as it investigated potential prey. There were no other houses visible from any of the windows – just moorland, a low rocky coastline, perhaps three quarters of a mile away, and the sea beyond. I could see myself spending time in a place like this and started to talk to Hazel about the timing of a future, longer trip. I had the sense that, for the first time, she started to think that this ‘project’, as she insisted on calling it, might actually happen. She was all too used to my vague ideas and knew that most of the time she didn’t have to take them too seriously. To be continued on Saturday at 12:45…