Islanders turn Santa to save Colonsay’s only hotel

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THE festive spirit is flowing on an island community after volunteers stepped in to save its only pub from closure over Christmas.

Faced with a two hour and 20 minute ferry ride to the nearest watering hole in Oban, islanders on Colonsay lined up to give seasonal cheer a hand on the Hebridean island.

Laird of Colonsay Alex Howard, and a few friends, took action to save the island’s only hotel and bar for the remote community by buying it when the previous owner closed it suddenly a few years ago.

But the downturn in the economy meant the bar, which was opened as an inn in 1750, was due to close over the winter months for the first time this year.

So an action plan was drawn up by local development officer Donald MacNeill, which sealed a deal with the laird to allow the community to pay a nominal rent to temporarily take over the bar.

Former bar worker Grace MacPhee, 24, and her partner, Keir Johnston, 27, who runs the island shop, have trained the volunteers in licensing laws, food hygiene and use of the tills.

Miss MacPhee said: “This was the first winter that the bar was going to be closed. They have tried in previous winters but like a lot of island hotels it’s not viable.”

Colonsay is one of the most remote islands in Britain, with no near neighbours.

Miss MacPhee said: “The nearest pub is in Oban, which is two hours and 20 minutes away on the ferry. The only other alternative is a 15-minute plane journey to Islay. We are opening the bar at weekends, and over the festive period we are opening extra hours.

“Lots of relatives are visiting over Christmas, and we might get some tourists here too, because we have RET (road equivalent tariff) now, so the ferry is cheaper.

“If there wasn’t a pub it wouldn’t be a very enjoyableholiday, so it’s important to keep it open for tourists and the locals.

“Our opening night on 1 December was a roaring success, with an evening of whisky tasting.”

Prices in the pub are a bargain, at £2 for a can of lager or a measure of spirit, with the island shop supplying the drink for the venture at cost price.

Colonsay also has its own micro-brewery, which is supplying a variety of ales at bargain prices.

However, she stressed that the community board that is running the pub is promoting “sensible drinking”.

Around 20 volunteers help with bar shifts, cleaning and recycling.

Islander Kevin Byrne, who once ran the Colonsay Hotel, said: “The pub was going to shut in the winter because it did not make commercial sense to keep it open.

“I am delighted they are doing this and I will support it as one should,” he added.

“Although they are volunteers, they are taking it seriously and have done proper training, so it does mean that quite a few younger people will have additional skills.”

The island has a population of over 120 people. A recent fundraising event in the bar made £750 for Children in Need.