COLONSAY HISTORY No 3. January 2015 contents:



Wartime Colonsay 1939 - 1945

Vernacular dwellings in Colonsay

A "new" archaeological site in Colonsay

The "sguidean" or rock-shelters of Colonsay

The earliest occupation sites in Colonsay

The McNeill, Butt, McPhee, McAllister, Buie, Duncan, Cowling etc. photographic archive in Colonsay

A note to any readers


To avoid doubt - there are two of these newsletters, appearing on alternate months. Colonsay History appears January, March, May etc., and Colonsay Kindred specialises in family history and appears February, April etc. It does not really matter, as all issues will be archived in any case. We find that the search engines are picking them up, so people will find their way to this site by a variety of routes. These are totally independent ploys by Kevin Byrne and in both cases contributions, corrections and comment are earnestly invited. Contact byrne[at]colonsay.org.uk


Colonsay and Oronsay Heritage Trust raised funds and has almost completed the restoration of An Cruisgean, the boiler-plate iron lighthouse built for Colonsay by the Stevenson engineers and unfortunately and inadvertently virtually destroyed during the construction of a modern solar-powered installation. It will be returned to Colonsay before Easter 2015.

There are Colonsay references in recently-published Volume 143 of Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (a reference copy can be borrowed from Homefield). "Seeds, fruits and nuts in the Scottish Mesolithic" pp. 9 - 72 refers. Also, "A Stranger in the dunes? Rescue excavation of a Viking Age burial at Cnoc nan Gall, Colonsay" pp. 303 - 318. Inter alia, it is encouraging to learn that a reappraisal of the Kiloran Bay Viking Boat-burial is currently underway.

The history of Bonaveh is currently being researched and information will be welcome, especially about the McPhee, Clark, Buie, Galbreath, McIntyre or Campbell/Hunter inhabitants.

Information about events or publications relevant to Colonsay will be welcomed for future editions, please send to byrne[at]colonsay.org.uk

Wartime Colonsay 1939 - 1945

The following information was kindly furnished by Ken McAllister, now living in New Zealand. His late brother, Peter, lived at Glassard:

Hi Kevin,

I was born in 1938 - My first memory was the Sunderland coming ashore - I remember being lifted to see the tail from Mother's bedroom upstairs and going along with my Aunty to see it, only to be turned back because of the bombs on board. The fishing fleet from Fleetwood was in the bay - a regular occurrence till well after the war. It was said the plane clipped a mast - the trawlers offered to tow the plane back out as only the wing tips were caught but the pilot refused so it was dismantled on the rocks. The seaplane that came ashore in Ardskenish was after the war - it had been abandoned by the Navy when it could not take off in high seas. Also a Hudson crashed between Colonsay and Jura - probably on the 1st April as no one would believe Alistair Darroch or me but I don't know when for sure. The ferry went out and recovered one body.

The Lookout on Bein a Gudairean was manned by Coast Guards (?) of which my Father was a member. He had a Lee Enfield Rifle supplied (ex WW1) plus practice rounds - which were used to shoot at a bouy below the house, only my Mother could hit it. Rather than carry the gun all the time my Father would leave it under a ledge on the side of the hill - I don't know if the lookout was manned all the time but I remember sleeping up there at nights and being there to count convoys forming off Oronsay in daytime. The hut burnt down due to a magnifying glass hanging in the window but suspect that was after the war. Lookout at Machrins was built after the war. There was also another hut (?) during the war where "Experts?" were trying to use lightbeams to contact a similar station on Mull. The Air Force Base was fairly large for Colonsay, I suspect it was early radar using masts - they had transport the first truck landed was too large to go up the Pier. They used to pick up the school kids and take us to movies with icecream and then drive us home. I remember seeing "The Road to Zanzibar". After the war everything was put in landing barges except the huts and masts. Most Airmen loved Colonsay as they were sent on overseas leave before being sent to Pinnace at Oban to be told by the crew they were heading for Canada. The Pinnaces came down at night often in atrocious weather and the Airmen had no idea where they were, but eventually brought their families - No 5 and 6 Glassard regularly had families in them.


Socket drilled in rock to support WWII mast guys

Mines were common and often heard blowing up against rocks when at school - the rifles were used to sink any seen in time. A large metal object which we played on and around on Kiloran Bay turned out to be a German Acoustic Mine apparently first found - a special team arrived to dismantle and remove every part.

My Mother ran the shop next to Netta's house before and through the war - rationing was a problem as steamers were very intermittent - most goods came from MacFarland Shearers, Greenock (?) Emergency rations were stored in the shed beside the shop. A Government Inspector checked these and replaced them each time he called telling my Mother to give old supply to the needy. She gave up the shop after the war when bread etc was also rationed.

My Father was the Undertaker making the coffins - apparently bodies on the shore were to be boxed and buried - which was done at the beginning till a family wanted the body sent home - after that my Father put every body that came ashore in a coffin.

Hope this information helps.

Regards Ken (McAllister)


Vernacular dwellings in Colonsay

One can readily view the current housing stock in Colonsay merely by reference to Google StreetView, or by glancing through the self-catering holiday accommodation on offer; this latter category includes five farmhouses, mostly dating from the late 19th c. and quite a lot of traditional crofthouses, dating from the earlier part of that century. On the other hand, there are (perhaps) some readers of this newsletter whose ancestors left the island at an earlier date, a period from which only Colonsay House (ca. 1715) and Oronsay House (ca. 1790) are known to survive; for them, it might be interesting to speculate upon the homes of their forefathers.

As it happens, there is an early Estate Map in existence, by David Wilson 1804, and it does show quite a lot of buildings. One can see that he does not record ruins or structures of peripheral interest - the map was drawn for business purposes and the evidence suggests that the buildings he records were both viable and inhabited structures at the time. No serious attempt has ever been made to identify these buildings on the ground, to see if there are any surviving remnants but a small experiment was attempted over Christmas 2014, when maps were made available and members of the public (readers of The Corncrake) were challenged to identify any trace of one specific building in the middle of the island.


It will be seen that the small-holding in question includes 11 acres 1 rood and 10 perches of hill ground, and almost 2 acres of arable land. The very distinctive bight in the march boundary to the north-west was useful in identifying the location as it can readily be seen beside the road about 50 yards to the west of the Quarry. On examination, it was found that remnants of the march boundary could be identified in sufficient state as to confirm the line; on the other hand, the boundary to delineate the margin of the hill ground survives only very faintly. The natural contour of the land has been used and in a few places a gap has been filled with stone, but elsewhere a bank of turves must have been created and has totally disappeared. It is instructive to see that all such traces have been lost in just two hundred years, whereas a short section rebuilt as a conventional stone wall (probably about 1850) remains virtually intact.

It is, at present, impossible to identify the occupant of this small-holding; it seems to be unique as being a tiny but coherent entity within a landscape of runrig jointly operated farms and the obvious thought is that it just might have been allocated to the catechist. As far as is known, the minister's glebe was the neighbouring much larger arable field marked as such on the plan, and still remembered by name ("The Glebe"). The minister, of course, visited but rarely and the catechist might well have had the run of his land as well.

The 1 acres 3 roods and 17 perches of "arable" land on the small holding is not, currently, inspiring. It is, admittedly, on more-or-less of a level, and it appears to have a sufficiency of depth but it is at present an ill-drained hummocky expanse of sour-looking grass, interspersed and bordered by rocky outcrops. On the other hand, it is some thirty feet above the neighbouring arable land and would have been readily drained. No obvious signs of cultivation rigs were noted.


The holding consisted of this one hill and the small platform below it

The dwelling house is plotted with some confidence upon the plan, where it seems to be a rectangular building set squarely in the middle of the cultivable part of the "arable" area. No sign of any building could be found at that spot, but on the margin of the arable there was a rather good example of a sguid (see article below in this issue) which was fronted by the outline footings of a modest rectangular building (NR 37759 93479). It seems that this is the building that was recorded by Wilson, and it therefore confirms that except in special cases he used a generic symbol to indicate a habitation, regardless of its actual shape or structure.

One might imagine that buildings such as this were familiar to the emigrants cleared from the island between 1790 and 1815. Besides the two mansion houses, such emigrants might possibly have been familiar with Scalasaig farmhouse, and the Inns at both Balnahard and Scalasaig (all of which are built to the same basic plan) - unfortunately it is difficult to be certain that these are the same structures as are shown on the plan. We do know that the Parish Church dates from ca. 1802. Other possibly early structures include the "Hen House" on the western side of Oronsay, and one at Drumhaugh beside Seaview - which is reputedly the oldest inhabited house in the island.

In a number of places there are ruins (not marked on David Wilson's map) which might be a guide - one or two of the best are in Oransay but most of those in Colonsay are on the higher ground and might well be mere shielings, often making secondary use of surviving remnants of hut circles and structures from the ancient past. The best one in Oransay (near Leaba Mhór) is boat-shaped, with thick walls and rounded corners, and conforms to the sort of style formerly described elsewhere; apparently such houses were known as tugadh (thatched) and the word was mistranslated, whether by accident or design, as “black-house” ( tigh dubh ). In Colonsay an easily accessible surviving site is just beyond Ardskenish House, where the outline of a former clachan is very clearly visible. An archaeological examination of the site proved fruitless in 2014, although the examination of a ruin at Dún Cholla was more rewarding and it was dated to the early 17th century.

For anyone interested in the subject, there are a number of important sites which will repay examination, the best being The Mate's House, east of Carn More and south of Riasg Buidhe; this is best seen before late May (because of bracken) and is an excellent example of an 18th c. smallholder's house that remained in occupation until the 1850s. Another good site is Tigh Iain Darroch, below one on the right, halfway between Kiloran Bay carpark and An Uamh Úr, which was a labourer's cottage; and an interesting crofthouse will be found at Miogarus, a couple of hundred yards behind the school. Something is known of the occupants of all three of those houses, but very little is known about the inhabitants of the three stone crofthouses and the two rather less substantial ones on the eastern and southern sides of A' Bheinn a' Tuath; it seems that the area was "cleared" in the 1850s, so it is likely that these houses date from the 18th c., as must be the case for those known as "the fever village", a couple of farmhouses on Cnoc Mór nan Totachan ("Big hill of the ruins") which were abandoned due to smallpox. Two small houses at Uragaig Bheag (behind Uragaig and Kiloran Bay cottages) were abandoned after the scarlatina outbreak of 1876, but may perhaps only date from the early 19th century. The houses on either side of the road at Machrins can still be clearly delineated and one of them ("The Club-house") is the subject of a number of good photographs taken across a period of thirty years or more, whilst it was still occupied.


Riasg Buidhe was founded in the early 19th c. but Bonaveh (pictured) may be earlier

Three stone houses at Baleromin Dubh appear on Wilson's map and their substantial remains can still be seen today – one of them is remembered as Tigh (Annie?) nic Lugaish and there is an interesting and detailed description of such houses in Summer in the Hebrides by Mrs. Murray (who says that she is describing Baleromindubh but in fact just might have meant to say Baleromin Mór).

There seems to be great scope for a proper survey of post-mediaeval homesteads in Colonsay, and this would chime rather neatly with an attempt to transpose detail from the Wilson map onto the current O.S. edition. It would also be an interesting exercise to map one or more of the 18th century agricultural holdings; the present writer recently attended a day's training in this sort of GPS work but as yet has not managed to convert theory to practice.

A "new" archaeological site in Colonsay

In studying David Wilson's 1804 estate map of Colonsay, one began to wonder if any of the buildings could still be identified. A Christmas competition was organised in connection with one fairly central location (detail above), and it was decided to have a dry-run elsewhere. Another building was noted as being close to the march fence between Baleromin Dubh and Balerominmór, along the line of a boundary from Loch Colla to the sea and somewhat to the east of a direct line drawn between the two clachans. An expedition was launched, starting from the Loch Colla end; the idea being to identify and follow the line of the original march.

The area is extremely wet and it was at first surprising to find no trace of the boundary, other than two iron gateposts in the middle of the bog. On reflection, one concluded that the dyke had probably been made of turf or peats and that the process of muirburn and normal erosion had done its work. This was confirmation that important and large-scale evidence can be completely lost within a couple of centuries and underlines the importance of mapping and recording all evidence that survives at present - such as those iron gateposts. If their position is properly recorded by the present generation then their postholes and the lead that holds them in the rock could be confirmed at some future date, even though the iron itself may have corroded into nothing.

Fortunately, the iron gateposts were a useful guide and after a brief search the site of Wilson's building was identified, at NR 38834 91742. One object of the research had been to compare a given building with its charted symbol - Wilson depicted Colonsay House, Oransay House and Oransay Priory with very detailed miniature outlines, and the farmsteads seem to represent the likely layout of the buildings. On the other hand, many other buildings appear as longhouses, perhaps three times as long as they are wide and all to the same scale - the site one was researching was depicted in just such a manner.

In fact, it was surprisingly different. The main structure had been rectangular 12ft east-west by 9ft north-south, with the entrance in the nw corner; but it was set within a circular perimeter ca. 24ft ew by 22ft ns, suggesting that re-use had been made of a pre-existing site. It was then noted that an additional circular site lay close by on the western side, ca. 14ft in diameter and possibly a third, slightly to the south. In the south-eastern corner of the complex there was a mound or low cairn, very possibly either midden material or field clearance. This site is not known to have been previously described and it is of interest that it can be seen to have been occupied as late as 1804.


The 18th c. house within hut circle, the adjacent hut circle and their relationship

The "sguidean" or rock-shelters of Colonsay

“Sguid” is an interesting word used in Colonsay to describe a particular type of dwelling, a word which does not seem to be heard elsewhere. It describes a structure built against an appropriately overhanging or sloping rocky face, preferably facing away from the wind or at least in a vaguely sheltered spot and close to cultivatable land or some other resource. The word clearly comes from the Indo-European stable and it seems to derive from the same Germanic root as the English word "shed" (Old English "sceadan"), given in the dictionary as a transitive verb; there can be little doubt that the noun (e.g. garden shed) is cognate.


A typical Colonsay sguid, about halfway between Port an Obain and Dún Loisgte in Balnahard

In Colonsay and Oronsay John de Vere Loder lists no less than eighteen examples of the word in connection with named shelters, not counting Loch na Sgùid, beside which there is a particularly fine example. Apparent cup-marks beside the latter suggest that this form of dwelling was in use from the earliest times and certainly from the Bronze Age. At Balnahard there is another fine example, Sguid nam Ban Truagh (NR 42656 99818), which Loder translates accurately enough as the Shelter of the Miserable Women, although he does trouble to perpetuate a rather silly Victorian story about nuns and flagellation.

More probably, the name derives from the clearance of Balnahard, in the 1790s. Most of the inhabitants were shipped off to the New World but doubtless there will have been a few folk too old and frail to be sent and it is likely that a couple of them eked out their lonely final years in this spot - the fact that it was clearly occupied into historic times can be seen from a glance at the cultivation ridges or "lazy beds" in the foreground. It was actually quite a commodious shelter, warm and dry and with uplifting views.


Sguid nam Ban Truagh (NR 42656 99818), showing cultivation rigs and dwelling

Loder did record all his named sguid sites upon a 6” Ordnance Survey Map which was kept at Colonsay house but it seems to have been mislaid. Until such time as it comes to light, it will not be possible to identify all of the sguidean by name, but anybody visiting Colonsay will certainly have no difficulty in finding numerous examples. One imagines that most of them were latterly only used in emergency or for temporary shelter whilst shepherding, but everyone will have known where they were and many of them will have served as dwellings in the past.

The earliest occupation sites in Colonsay

In addition to the famous shell-middens of Oronsay researched by Prof. Paul Mellors, which seem to have had seasonal and possibly communal significance, Prof. Steven Mithen has fully researched and described the Mesolithic occupation site that he identified at Loch Staosnaig. The latter site is of particular interest because it seems to be more typical of the normal occupational pattern of small groups with a nomadic lifestyle. The party in question had chosen a sandy, well-sheltered bay beside a reliable well (one which is now badly overgrown and which has never been subjected to archaeological investigation). At the time, the site was adjacent to an extensive wooded area, abounding in hazel and stretching away to the southwest as far as Loch Colla. The hazel nuts had been harvested on an almost industrial scale and processed in some way, presumably for consumption in the coming winter; the tuber of Lesser Celendine had also been exploited, more probably for consumption at the time. Flint was available, washed up on the western shore, and had been extensively worked, postholes were discovered which might have supported a windbreak but more probably a frame to dry skins (presumably of otter or seal). A couple of pits were evidence of fireplaces and it is quite clear that the occupiers of the site were sophisticated individuals, comfortable and competent within their environment. See To the Islands by Steven Mithen 978-1906120558.

There is very little accepted evidence for human activity in Colonsay during the Neolithic period, if one ignores the romantic possibility of such an early origin for Dunan nan Nighean and the neighbouring (but unrecorded) circular enclosure and celestial alignment in A' Choille Bheag. As it happens, the one recorded site was in the dunes at Balnahard, apparently a very temporary campsite beside the burn. Loder speaks of "flint implements" having been found, and RCAHMS refers to "stone axes".


Location views of a Neolithic campsite at Balnahard, Colonsay

By the Bronze age we are onto firmer ground and we are fortunate in that these first farmers based themselves on land which has been largely unaffected by subsequent developments. This might be slightly due to climate change, but in the main is due to the fact that they were the first people to live permanently in the island after the most recent Ice Age - they could choose the best land for their purpose at the time, and they did.

One must remember that the retreating ice, some 10,000 years ago, deposited a great deal of morrain material in the form of a mantle, not unlike the icing on a cake. It quickly became stabilised by the growth of grasses and shrubs, and apart from the occasional wildfire will have been largely undisturbed for some 6,000 years or so. When the first farmers arrived, they chose to live on the higher, drier ground, where the vegetation was less dense and where the soil was more tractable. One can imagine that slash-and-burn was the favoured method of taming the land, and that the land so cleared would have been subject to reasonable intensive cultivation. The climate had become wetter and warmer, the soil was being worked at the top of the hills, muirburn would have become more frequent, drainage was doubtless in vogue - after 3,000 years or so, it is unsurprising that erosion had done its work and that the agriculture effort had, quite literally, moved progressively downhill.

What little agricultural activity survives is now concentrated in the glens, so the denuded hills survive as a living and wonderfully accessible window into the lives of our forebears. The best sites to visit are on the Garvard peninsula, the hill above Teampull na Ghlinne, the hill between Loch Fada and "the old road" and the hills to the east and north of Carnan Eoin. In many cases the outlines of fields are clearly seen as lines of single stones - these seem to have provided footings and stability for turf walls upon which thorn hedges will have been established. It is interesting to note that by modern times local farmers did not always trouble to provide such anchors for their turf boundaries, so that subsequent erosion and muirburn has been able to eradicate all trace. There is very often a significant funeral cairn to mark the territory, in a very few places there are cupmarks (man-made egg-shaped depressions in rock made by rotating some harder material) in association with the site, and nearly everywhere there are more or less numerous hut circles. It would be tedious to list the hut circles here when information is readily available in RCAHMS Volume 5 or through a leaflet or books available in Colonsay. For anyone seeking a challenge, an unrecorded circle may be found in a remote location at NR 42378 99070 but the sites above Teampull na Ghlinne or Tobar Caluim Chille are much more exciting and are easily visited.

The McNeill photographic archive

A collection of 65 largely unidentified photographs was published in Colonsay Kindred, October edition. The subjects were believed to be members of the extended McNeill of Colonsay family ca. 1880 - 1910 and are mostly in the form of cartes de visite. This suggests that there will be duplicate copies elsewhere - one or two were readily matched by digital comparisons on a search engine, but the search goes on. Some of the subjects are public figures - others are individuals of significance locally, but all are connected with Colonsay. The collection is now known to be relevant to McNeill, McPhee, Butt, Buie, McAllister, Duncan, Cowling and others. If you have any connection with Colonsay ancestry, please help pass the word worldwide so that this wonderful archive can be properly indexed. Hover over each image for any information already to hand and do please encourage others to have a look. See the portraits here.

A note to any readers:

Anecdotal material, diaries or unpublished material of an historical nature will be much appreciated for this site - please feel free to get in touch with byrne[at]colonsay.org.uk

A sister site exists at www.colonsay.info which promotes accommodation but which also hosts information about Colonsay Family History; to avoid confusion, it is hoped to keep to more general material on the present site.

Material published here counts as "work in progress"; please do not accept it as fact without recourse to original sources.

This site is owned by Kevin Byrne and every attempt is made to respect copyright; feel free to link to this site but please do not copy material for republication without prior consent. Wherever possible, such consent will be given happily and without charge.