Island life on Colonsay will get under your skin

New Zealander Linda McLaughlan grew up hearing about the magic of Colonsay. When the author was finally able to visit, what she discovered exceeded her expectations

Looking towards Scalasaig, Colonsay. Picture: Contributed
Looking towards Scalasaig, Colonsay. Picture: Contributed

For me, the road to Colonsay began on a sleepy Sunday afternoon sometime last century. The afternoon would have gone something like this: I was sprawled on the sofa, my teenage hair dyed a provocative purple-black, thinking about piercings, and which one I will do first – nose? Lip? Tongue? From his chair next to me, my grandfather was trying to extricate from my sister some “news”, but the conversation was vague, mumbled and bitty. He looked up gratefully when mum joined us.

“I spoke to Liz, yesterday,” Mum said.

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“Oh yes?” my grandfather perked up.

“They’re off to Colonsay in a week.”

“Colonsay,” he whispered, as if he was talking about the most magical place on earth.

Hang on, that can’t be right. My grandfather wasn’t a whisperer, not even when he was meant to be one. Especially when he was meant to be. My memory is playing tricks on me, but I know what it is doing. Having him whisper reverentially is the perfect way to capture how my grandfather felt about that little island poking up out of the Atlantic. He longed to visit it, to walk its beaches, to hear the voices of the handful of people living there, to watch how the changing light plays with the colours on the bare land and the choppy seas that surround it. But he never got there. Our sleepy Sunday afternoons took place 12,000 miles away in New Zealand, Colonsay may as well have been a myth.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and I have shacked up with an Englishman and moved hemispheres. Scotland is within striking distance – or more accurately, within an arduous two-day journey from Hampshire in a small car with two under fives. I was writing my first novel and trying to find the space in my head to do so amongst the chaos of small people. My family invited us for Christmas and I couldn’t wait to dream a little on that rock in the sea and empty copious bottles of wine and whisky with my cousins. Strangely, I actually had very little idea of what to expect. I looked it up on Google maps, but they hadn’t been there yet – in fact, they still haven’t. That little yellow man just kicks his legs uselessly if you try and drag him onto the island. I hope it stays that way forever.

That year, the winter was hard. So much snow, so very pretty, so very good at closing motorways. But I was determined. I squeezed a spade and spare water in the boot of our Vauxhall. From the other side of the planet, my grandfather made me promise to tell him everything on the phone, and off we set.

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And it didn’t disappoint. There, waiting for us on the pier at Scalasaig, were the resident cousins, cheeks as red as apples in the searing cold wind. I watched with amazement as Liz took her keys off the dashboard and started her car.

“It is in case anyone needs to move it,” she explained.

“What, anyone?” I asked.

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“Oh yes,” she twinkled away at me. She pointed at the one ferry visiting that day (one of only three coming in that week) already chugging out into the harbour. “No one is going to get away with taking a car onto that ferry who shouldn’t have one. We all know each others’ cars, anyway.”

Not only that, but the islanders all know each other by name. The 2011 census recorded 124 residents, with a further five living on Oronsay, a small island connected by a tidal causeway known as The Strand. This is my kind of place, I thought, as we slid our way merrily along the road.

I faithfully reported news of family back to my grandfather, minus telling him how many bottles went to the recycling. My descriptions of the island itself were based on short, cold forays out in between long lunches and before night fell in mid-afternoon. A walk in the surprisingly lush woods at Colonsay House; a thermos of tea at The Strand, pondering Oronsay and its gloriously tenuous accessibility; bumpy drives around the circular road around the island en route to the general store where my cousin tallied up folk’s groceries; many toddler-sized stumbles through the snow around the croft we hunkered down in. What was very clear to me was the way the island pulls people home. My Scottish family has had ties to the place for 60 plus years, and for many of them it is their touchstone, as it must be for most islanders, both permanent and part-time residents.

It took until I visited during the spring, years later, that we could spend long stretches of time outside. We sat on rocks at one end of Kiloran Bay, as the children fossicked happily in rock pools.

We were the only ones there. The sky was blue overhead, the sand deep and golden. Liz and I spoke about both the sad and happy things that had happened since we’d last seen each other, and the wind took our words and zephyred them into the sky. The children did their usual thing of equating beach time with swimming, with complete disregard of the actual temperature, and waded into the April Altantic Ocean to their waists. If we didn’t have puffer jackets on, we could have been in New Zealand, it was that beautiful and that deserted. As it was, the puffers didn’t stay on for long, since the children needed them when they turned blue after a few minutes in the water.

That afternoon, the children clambered over orange, green and aubergine-coloured tussocks on the way to Beinn Eibhne, so they could stand on the rugged crags that overlook Loch Fada below. They found a goat’s skull and placed it on top of a cairn and felt their Gaelic blood stirring in their veins. At least, I’d like to think they did. More likely they felt the dip of their sugar levels and wanted to know what the next snack would be.

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My times on Colonsay have been to see precious family, but I have fallen for the place. It is a real deal island – wild, yet peaceful, quiet, yet full of life and it got under my skin on a deeper level. Just thinking about it can help me feel calmer, just as simply hearing about it made my grandfather feel closer to Scotland. It has occurred to me that perhaps everyone needs their own Colonsay – a rock to stand on, with big skies above them, somewhere to dream, somewhere to belong. Or, as my cousin, the Edinburgh spoken word artist known as Tickle, explained to me, “Wherever I hang my hat it’s just a place my hat happens to be till I get to Colonsay. It’s not unchanging but it changes slowly enough that you have time to adjust. It’s small enough to feel knowable but big enough to feel like an adventure. It’s the geographical constant in my life.” n

• Linda McLaughlan has worked in film and TV in both her native New Zealand, and in the UK where she now lives. She spent some time backpacking through Asia where she met her illustrator husband and moved to England. She lives on very little sleep in a quiet lane in deepest Hampshire with her husband, two children, five chickens and string of foster dogs. Chasing Charlie (Black & White Publishing, £7.99) is her debut novel.