Colonsay: the small island that’s got a big history

Colonsay and its tiny neighbour Oronsay are known as the ‘Jewels of the Hebrides’. At roughly 10 miles long by two miles wide they’re a compact island pairing. They may be small, but they certainly pack a punch – especially when it comes to history and heritage. The first settlement on Colonsay dates back to the Mesolithic period, around 7,000 to 3,500 BC. There is evidence of numerous Bronze Age sites and at least nine forts on the island date to the Iron Age. There are also important pre-Reformation Christian sites, including the remains of Oronsay Priory. Look closely at place names and you’ll see echoes of the Viking period too. Here are the historical sites on Colonsay and Oronsay that you can’t miss.

Oronsay Priory

If the tide is right, don't miss walking across the half-mile of sand linking Colonsay to smaller Oronsay. Here you can explore the 14th-century ruins of Oronsay Priory, one of Scotland's best-preserved mediaeval priories. Founded by John the Good, Lord of the Isles, around 1340 AD the substantial remains are hugely atmospheric and include a nationally significant collection of carved mediaeval gravestones. The 15th century consecrated High Altar is one of very few that has survived intact. The High Cross, which is almost 3.7 metres tall, is carved from a single slab with incredible skill. The island is accessible on foot for about 1½ hours either side of low tide. You’ll find tide tables at the ferry terminal and Colonsay Hotel.

The Graveyard, Kilchattan

Visit the remains of the 15th-century Cille Chatan – St Cathan's Chapel – which stands on the site of an older chapel. You’ll find historic graves in the graveyard. Some of the gravestones are hard to read, but transcriptions can be seen at Colonsay Bookshop. The holy well 'Tobar Chattan' is situated in the face of the bank opposite Kilchattan Church.

Parish Church, Scalasaig

You can visit this parish church, built in 1802, at any time, but just make sure you secure the door, so that sheep cannot enter and be trapped! It’s built on the site of a mediaeval chapel.

Colonsay House and Gardens

Colonsay House was built on the site of Kiloran Abbey. The first part of this handsome Georgian house was built in 1722, with the curved Palladian-style wings added in 1780. There are a number of holiday apartments in the south facing wing of the house available to rent. The surrounding gardens, mostly planted in 1930, are considered to have one of the finest rhododendron collections in Scotland. Look out for the 9th-century carved early Christian cruciform stone, which stands beside Tobar Odhran (The Well of St Odhran). 

Dùn Eibhinn

Dating from the Iron Age, Dùn Eibhinn is a hill fort near Scalasaig that’s believed to have been built as a royal residence in the early 11th century. In mediaeval times it was used as a base by the chieftain of Clan MacPhie, the governors of the island under Clan Donald. It is said to have been the ancestral home of Somerled, progenitor of the Lords of the Isles, who in 1156 defeated the fleet of Godred, King of Man, as it emerged from the Sound of Islay.

Riasg Buidhe

Take a walk to the ruined fishing settlement of Riasg Buidhe, a typical 19th century clachan located north of Scalasaig. It’s interesting to see how houses were built “in a run” (i.e. as a terrace). The village was abandoned in 1918.

Lower Kilchattan Standing Stones
A visit to the Lower Kilchattan Standing Stones cannot fail to fire the imagination. They’re known locally as Fingal’s Limpet Hammers, and they do indeed resemble the tools used by Neolithic inhabitants of Colonsay used for knocking limpets off the rocks on the shoreline. Examples of these tools were found on Oronsay and are believed to date from between 6,000 and 3,500 BC. The stones themselves are huge, standing 8 and 10 feet high and 45 feet apart.

Colonsay’s caves
You’ll find caves at the north end of Kiloran Bay which are relatively accessible and easy to explore. A visit to the New Cave at the southern end of the beach will require a bit more planning. Also known as Uamh Ur and the Crystal Spring Cavern, this is a large three chambered cave which displays evidence of occupation up to and including the Iron Age.

Colonsay and Oronsay Heritage Centre
To discover more about Colonsay and Oransay's history, from the early Bronze Age right up to the present day, drop into the Colonsay and Oronsay Heritage Centre in Kilchattan. It’s open all year round and contains an evolving display of artefacts and photographs covering everything from natural history to social history.

Find out more about things to see and do on Islay, Jura & Colonsay.