Come to Colonsay, enjoy our four-star holiday cottages


recreated text of Issue # 4 (late April 2000)

The text of this issue has been recovered. The originating editor was Kevin Byrne but the archive file of the first 100 editions was wiped in error; it will be recreated as far as possible but it is doubtful if all the photographs can be recovered. Please ignore anything that, with hindsight, might be upsetting or annoying - the attempt to recreate the files would be pointless if the text were to be bowdlerized. Any necessary or desirable changes will appear in square brackets with a date e.g. [a change kb0315]. If anybody wishes to add comment or enlightenment, send it to byrne@colonsay.org.uk identifying the issue in question and the comment can perhaps be added as a footnote.




Church of Scotland Manse
A working party from our linked parish of Kilchattan and Kilbrandon was in Colonsay from Monday to Friday 3 - 7 April, and did great work in arranging the furniture and making the place ready for its summer occupants. Rev. Freda Marshall and her husband and son were ably assisted by John Roberts (who is a lay preacher and regular visitor to Colonsay); the party was kept in order by Ray Chisholm (former head teacher in the school) and her friend Joan, from Balvicar. The painting and the landscaping await completion, but it is hoped to have everything ready for Easter. On Easter Sunday, there will be a Service at 7pm and there will also be a Christening d.v.

Flying Visit
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Popular community policeman Raymond Law surprised us all by arriving in a helicopter on Wednesday 5 April. It was noted that his machine was red and easily recognisable, so next time he calls an even larger number of people will be able to jump into their cars and drive down to welcome him at Machrins.


Outing to Eilean Dubh Iain Mhitchel

The Primary School pupils have been visiting historic sites during the term, and on Tuesday paid a visit to the remains of the 17th century castle on an island in Loch an Sgoltaire. It was beautiful day, with warm spring sunshine and the expedition was a great success. With vegetation still dormant, the castle walls were clearly exposed and the whole island was thoroughly examined - including the pit where valuables were said to have been buried in the darker days of the last war. Although no forgotten treasure was discovered, the children gathered samples of mosses and lichens and took plenty of photographs. Teachers Carol and Pede MacNeill were assisted by boat persons Alex Howard and Kevin Byrne.

IaaO Meeting [Iomart aig an Oir = Initiative at the Edge kb140217]
A meeting was held to discuss the recent survey re. a proposed air service. The meeting was well attended and there was a detailed discussion of the whole subject. The general feeling was that the "air service" is an attractive but possibly unhelpful diversion and it was decided to write to the proper authorities with an outline of first principles. People believe that the island requires better communications, with greater frequency and affordability, and that arrangements must be made to facilitate schoolchildren who wish to return home for weekends. In effect, the time has come for an additional ferry service to meet the existing needs of the island, and to allow for some future growth. People do not insist upon a marine ferry and would have no inherent objection to a form of air-bridge, provided it was along the lines of the service provided for islands in Orkney. Any discussion of a more expensive option is pointless, as is discussion of any service which fails to meet the islanders' identifiable needs. Whilst it might be possible to accept a suitable air service in lieu of an additional marine ferry for the immediate future, there can be no question of any diminution in the existing service. The meeting agreed that it was an additional service that was required, with an enhancement to the existing situation, rather than a movement in the other direction.

Arbor Antics
A party of instructors brought an array of traditional woodworking tools to the new hall, and allowed all the children to try their hands at steaming timber, turning and planing the wood, working with withies etc.; they then helped the children to plant willow trees. It was a thoroughly stimulating experience, and the hall committee was fascinated by the unusual central heating device which was associated with the steaming operation.

Electrical Storm
A major lightning strike on 31 March has caused widespread disruption. The immediate casualties included land and satellite TV systems, fax machines and other devices connected to the telephone lines, the CalMac and Lochar ISDN connections and numerous telephones. BT send out an emergency team on the next ferry and restored the connections, whilst insurance companies seem to have responded well to the claims. Unfortunately there must have been latent damage which is only subsequently appearing, and which Duncan MacDougall is still repairing. By 7 April, thirty six telephone connections had been reported as faulty. One or two people have been without telephones throughout the period, leading to some concern for those who are living alone. Although Glassard has been without communications for quite some time, observers have noted reassuring chimney smoke and have seen figures moving amongst the livestock.

Rates Revaluation
Argyll & Bute have issued the Revaluation notices, and few reductions have been reported. One figure to hand is for the coal-righ (the small yard opposite the cattle pens). It is used to store both coal and gas, and no other use is permitted… in the judgement of the council, it is worth £775 a year. Thus they impose a levy of £3.00 a tonne on all coal supplied to the island, in addition to the £45.00 a tonne which must be paid for freight. Central government, in a bid to reduce excessive consumption of fossil fuels, has an additional impost of 5% VAT (to be levied on the total bill, the fuel itself, plus the freight, plus the rates). Coal already costs £4.05 for a 25kg bag in Colonsay and in a circuit of the island at nine a.m. on 31 March, smoke could be seen from only five chimneys on the island.

Aurora Borealis
On the night of April 6 there was an astonishing display of Northern Lights. At about one a.m., facing south, the centre of the phenomenon seemed to be almost directly overhead - it was as if the sky was an enormous dome, with a central (but invisible) light source. From this central point, a cone of light fell in radiating shafts at intervals of (say) ten degrees. The lower ends of these shafts of light (perhaps one third to one half of their length) merged into crimson pools to the east and west, as if dawn and sunset coincided. It was a truly unforgettable sight and your correspondent had to be dissuaded from telephoning all around the island to make sure nobody missed it.

"Word of Mouse"
The "Sunday Telegraph" has mentioned the Colonsay Website in an unsolicited testimonial. "While the rest of the world is spending a fortune going dot-com crazy, the small Hebridean island of Colonsay (www.colonsay.org.uk) has created a brilliant community website which shows that it doesn't have to cost millions to get your message across. Reached by ferry from Oban, the island has one hotel and a variety of self-catering cottages that are described here in detail, with prices. The site includes bird and plant lists for the island, which has good, sandy beaches and a golf course." A mention such as this is very valuable - many thanks to Dominic Cornford, whose guiding hand it is that works our wires.

What's On in Colonsay
Blackthorn opposite the quarry: any day now, and for just a few hours, the blackthorn wood will be in perfect bloom. It is an extraordinary sight, well worth noticing.
On Saturday 15 April there is to be a Great Litter Hunt. Everyone is urged to participate or give support in some way, even if only in and around their own place. Bin bags are to be provided and all sponsorship money will be given to the Hall Fund. Feel free to go out collecting before that date, but do declare your mileage so that full credit can be obtained. It is hoped that residents and visitors will make a special effort this year to maintain the momentum. Picnic parties are urged to adopt and enhance some special corner of the island.
On Tuesday 18 April, there is to be a concert in the new hall, featuring the music of Forbes MacHardy and Alasdair Brown. More details will appear on notice boards, but a "byob" Ceilidh and Dance is on the cards.
On Easter Saturday, the MacAllisters and their extended families will be holding a Millenium Party in the new hall. The theme is one of celebration - everyone is invited and will be truly welcome. There will be a small charge and all funds raised with be in aid of the Hall Fund. This seems likely to be a great night and is a definite date for your diary.

Archie is making great progress on the new roof at Cnoc na Tarunn; Duncan is rumoured to be planning to spend more time with his poles; MV "Hebridean Princess" has FIVE scheduled visits to Colonsay this month alone; Andrew Howard and his wife Kate have a new baby, Keir Hamish Shackleton; two carpet layers have been busy for a week - estate cottages must be very snug indeed; a young couple have purchased part of Mull Dubh and will be coming to live in Colonsay; no otters this week, but the island is stiff with chough; large numbers of geese seem to have chosen to remain and are courting enthusiastically; eiders (Lach Colbhasa) are displaying; in sheltered spots there are Pink Purslane, wood sorrel and violets; Scottish Tourist Board inspector has paid his annual visit.

The Magazine Section

Colonsay Gaelic

Historically, Gaelic has been the language of everyday communication on Colonsay since the first Celtic settlers arrived from Ireland over 1500 years ago. As recently as the 1970s, Gaelic was still spoken by the majority of islanders, but increasingly over the past 50 years the young people have preferred to speak English, and incomers to the island have no longer had to learn Gaelic in order to communicate, as was once the case. Nowadays there are about 25 fluent speakers out of a population of around 100, plus about half-a-dozen brave souls who are actively learning the language and about the same number who, having grown up in a Gaelic-speaking community, are able to understand the language but not speak it. There are of course many times that number of Colonsay exiles on the mainland and overseas who can speak Colonsay Gaelic fluently although they may not always have the opportunity to do so.

Colonsay like all the islands of the Hebrides has its own particular form of Gaelic, which fits into the "family" of southern, or Argyll, dialects. Argyll Gaelic, though much in decline in the past century, has many features of both vocabulary and pronunciation which distinguish it from more northerly dialects such as those of Lewis and Skye.

Colonsay Gaelic, as one might expect, shows many similarities to the Gaelic spoken in Islay, its closest neighbour. However, Colonsay's isolated position, and its links with other islands, notably Mull to the north, have meant that the Colonsay dialect has more of a Hebridean "feel" to it than Islay. Like Islay it makes much use of the glottal stop, that catch in the throat which is familiar to English speakers in the Glasgow or Cockney pronunciation of words like "bottle" or "city". In Colonsay and Islay Gaelic however, it occurs mainly when the letters 'l', 'n' or 'r' appear in the middle of a word, as in the Gaelic name of the island, Colbhasa (sometimes spelt without the silent "bh"), which is pronounced "Co'-la-sa".

Another prominent feature of Colonsay Gaelic is that in certain cases, especially when preceded or followed by a nasal consonant ('n' or 'm'), the letter 'a' is pronounced as if it was an 'e'. Thus the Gaelic word "math", meaning "good", is pronounced "meh". This characteristic has led to much leg-pulling of Colbhasachs over the years at the hands of other Gaels who accuse them of sounding like sheep, and the fact that the word for a dead sheep - "closach" - sounds very like the word "Colbhasach", meaning a Colonsay person, has not helped the situation. In fact Colonsay Gaelic does not go as far in this respect as Islay, but a discerning ear may pick up the pronunciation of common expressions such as "slàinte mhath" (good health) and "oidhche mhath" (good night), while the placename Balavetchy (between Kiloran Farm and the bay) is a phonetic transcription of Bail' a' Mhaide as heard with a Colonsay pronunciation.

On an exceptionally clear day the distant hills of Donegal can be seen from Colonsay - as St Columba discovered to his cost, ....but that is another story. It is therefore not altogether surprising that Colonsay Gaelic includes some expressions which are more reminiscent of Irish than of Scots Gaelic. An example is the phrase "gu robh math agad" (literally "may good be with you"), which is used for "thank you", or the word "cosmhail", meaning "similar".

Being such a small and remote island, Colonsay has not figured prominently in the history of Gaelic literature. But in the late nineteenth century, when it was decided to establish a Chair of Celtic at Edinburgh University - the first of its kind anywhere in the world - it was a Colonsay man, Donald Mackinnon, who was elected as the first Professor. Mackinnon's own Gaelic output was mainly in the form of articles and essays, some of them about Colonsay, but he was also a great collector of Gaelic literature, an apologist for the Gaelic cause, and above all an assiduous and inspirational teacher. He died at Balnahard in 1914.

More recently, Colonsay's own publishing firm, House of Lochar, has produced a slim volume of Gaelic poems by Donald MacNeill, who farmed at Garvard for many years and died in 1995. Entitled Moch is Anmoch ("early and late"), a quotation from one of the poems, it includes English translations by the writer of this article. Other pieces of Gaelic song and story from Colonsay were collected by the late Alasdair McAllister, and it is hoped that they can also be published as a companion volume.

For those whose appetite for Gaelic may have been whetted by reading this, there are courses held on Colonsay, usually in the spring and autumn, catering for complete beginners and those who have got beyond the beginners' stage. For more details, visit: www.colonsay.org.uk/courses . Although the future of Gaelic as a living language on Colonsay looks uncertain, there is a growing recognition that it is a vital component in the island's heritage, and has helped to make Colonsay the very special place it is today.

Alastair MacNeill Scouller


"Colonsay Isle" has a certain timeless charm and features at every Ceilidh. In our last issue, we published the Gaelic Translation by Duncan Johnston, but it is just possible that somebody, somewhere, is not familiar with the words in English, by Edith G. Clark.

1. In the circlet of Isles lying out to the West,
There's none of these gems can compare,
With dear Colonsay Isle, on whom nature has shower'd
Her beauties so rich and so rare.

Much loved Isle,
'Tis to thee that my thoughts ever roam,
For though I may wander by land or by sea,
'Tis Colonsay Isle call home.

2. The Mountains of Jura may gloom in the mist,
And Mull's lofty bens lost to view,
But Colonsay Oronsay Isles lie sun-kissed,
And sparkling with radiant hue.

3. The waters are dancing, the waves lap the shore,
The Lark sings its song up on high,
The Merle and the Mavis are building their nests,
And sapphire the blue of the sky.

4. In Colonsay Isle, there are hearts leal and true,
There are those who are waiting for me,
So God speed the day when again I'll return
To Colonsay, gem of the sea.


About 9,800 years ago, the ice receded and made human habitation possible in Colonsay. It did not take long for folk to arrive and for a variety of reasons the archaeological remains in Colonsay are of outstanding significance. The early residents had no problem getting to Colonsay, since it was not an island at the time - indeed, the North Sea did not exist and it was possible to walk across to Colonsay from (say) Norway or Germany. The shell middens of Oronsay were identified and researched in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and ongoing research in the current century is devoted to sites in Colonsay itself.

Steven Mithen directed intensive excavations on the shore of Loch Staosnaig in the mid 1990's, and his full publication is awaited. It is hoped that he will be publishing a "popular" edition in addition to his academic work, and the island is grateful to him for his informative approach. In 1996 he referred to the Loch Staosnaig excavation: "Although we have undertaken considerable survey work on Colonsay the only undisturbed Mesolithic occupation deposits we have discovered are at Staosnaig. Excavation at this site in 1989, 1992 and 1994 has revealed several scatters of stone tools, the remains of three hearths and some large stone lined pits. The largest feature is a 4.5m circular pit, about 50cm deep which was filled with pieces of burnt hazelnut shell and discarded stone artifacts and is dated to c. 7750 BP. This and the large stone lined pits are unique finds for the Mesolithic of Scotland. The large circular feature appears to be either the remains of a hut, or a storage/processing pit relating to an extensive exploitation of hazelnuts on the island. Current research is attempting to identify the function of this feature, and the role of this remarkable site in the Mesolithic settlement pattern" Elsewhere he mentioned that "Steven Carter … has examined the sediments from the large hazelnut-shell filled feature at Staosnaig. He suggests that the many thousands of shells in that hollow accumulated in a matter od days reflecting an intensive harvesting and roasting of hazelnuts."

All this gave rise to a spectacular coup by the Vegetarian Society, who launched worldwide publicity to support the suggestion of a Mesolitihic vegetarian community in Colonsay; their tongue-in-cheek statements attracted extensive media interest and a bemused Steven Mithen had to re-iterate his original thoughts: "These people were highly mobile hunter-gatherers. The pit we found suggests that they may havc been using a relatively sophisticated method of food processing, possibly producing a paste from roasted nuts. I suspect vegetarianism is a relatively modern trend."

It was all good fun at the time, and to the present day a meta-search on "Staosnaig" is likely to direct one to this bizarre cul-de-sac. Meantime, readers of "The Corncrake" will be notified when the excavation report is published. KB.

Website to explore

Once again, we are suggesting a website that will be of interest to readers of "The Corncrake". Over the years, many Colonsay folk have made contributions to the work of Comunn Gaidhlig Inbhir Nis / The Gaelic Society of Inverness; and the publications of the Society are invaluable. The present writer was researching potential sites of "Will o' the Wisp" in Colonsay a few years ago, and was guided by information which GSI had published ("An Teine Mor"). For many years, when the site was under its control, GSI were successful in protecting Culloden from the encroachment of hawkers and postcard-sellers. Visit the Society now, at http://www.gsi.org.uk and see how they are getting on.


Readers Write

The editorial computer is back online (just), and it was gratifying to receive email from readers. Even better, we received an article - many thanks to Alastair Scouller. A printed copy of "The Corncrake" has been available from the shop recently and may encourage more feedback. More contributions, please. Contact the editor the Editor - byrne@colonsay.org.uk

Editorial Policy

Corncrake is published to keep all our friends in touch with life on the island. Contributions are invited and welcomed. Fortnightly editions will carry details of coming events, special offers etc. Please send letters and proposals for specific articles to the Editor Brief genealogical and related queries are also welcome from Colbhasach s overseas, as are obituaries and family traditions relating to Colonsay emigrants. This publication will hopefully develop to reflect the interests of the readership so please feel free to make your contribution. The magazine section needs articles on flora, fauna, geology, fishing, crofting etc.