A Very Brief History of Colonsay

The Island of Colonsay, with its penticle Oransay, is barely 20 square miles in extent, and has a population of about 135 persons, being situated about 37 miles to the southwest of Oban, the nearest mainland port. It is a reasonably isolated place, from which it is impossible to visit the neighbouring islands of Iona, Mull or Jura except by private means; indeed, a visit to the nearest neighbour, Islay, entails a minimum stay of 3 or 4 nights in summer and a week in winter.

Yet it was not always like this - in prehistoric times, Colonsay was at the centre of activity. The Mesolithic hunter-gathering population which occupied the area following the most recent ice-age seems to have had the tiny island of Oransay at the heart of its way of life - for 1,500 years and more it seems that Oransay provided a centre for seasonal visits, for feasting and - presumably - matchmaking and other social and intellectual exchange. The sea was not a barrier to these people, instead it was a highway and by the beginning of the Bronze Age an important trading route connected the eastern Mediterranean with Scandinavia by way of the Iberian Peninsula, the Irish Sea and the Great Glen (which nowadays is known for the Caledonian Canal). That trading route ran past Colonsay and along the Firth of Lorne, ensuring that this seemingly remote location was never far from events in the wider world.

In fact, whoever controlled Colonsay controlled the entrance to and from the vital Sound of Islay, effectively with a stranglehold upon the entire channel of communications. Thus it was that when the Scotti came across from Ireland they established an important command centre in Colonsay, and St. Columba used Oransay as a key link in his own supply line back to Derry and the Foyle by way of Islay; from his base in Iona he was able to foray up the Great Glen as far as the kingdom of King Brude, securing the next link in the great trade route. To this day, the population along the trading route bears witness to the past, as geneticists have been able to demonstrate by study of the inter-related DNA. One of the first such studies revealed an extraordinary and unexpected connection between the O'Byrnes of Wicklow and the families of Beattie and Ferguson in southwest Scotland; as time goes by, such links will be found to form a chain and it is likely that the points of interest or nodes will be within one or two days sailing of one another.

In due course, the Scandinavians made their way southwards along such trading routes and once again Colonsay's key location was important. Although it would never equate to the great trading centres of York, Dublin or Wexford, Colonsay was a convenient administrative centre for the Viking rulers in Man and to this day bears witness to that fact in both placenames and archaeological remains. In the fulness of time, the Vikings were to be eclipsed and the great House of Clan Donald arose in their stead.

Ancestral home of all MacDonalds

It is a curious fact that many present-day MacDonalds associate themselves with Skye, whereas it was Colonsay that provide both the Alpha and the Omega to their period of glory. It is an accepted fact that the first Donald was descended from Somerled, and it was from a base in Colonsay that, in 1156, Somerled provoked Godred, King of Man, to send a fleet against him which he ambushed and defeated in the Sound of Islay. According to Colonsay tradition, Somerled was the direct descendant of Jarl Gilli, who governed the Sudereys (Southern Isles) from Colonsay and who died about 1005 a.d.; a famous Viking grave in Colonsay may be that of Jarl Gilli, in which case DNA may one day confirm or deny the tradition. Whatever the case, it is undeniable that Colonsay is the ancestral home of all MacDonalds on earth, and in fact it evidently remained dear to the clan throughout their turbulent history. Clan Donald, as Lords of the Isles, appointed Clan MacPhee to govern Colonsay and Oransay - probably from the early 14th century - and also to maintain the Records of the Lordship; their descendants have maintained a close connection with the islands until the present day. After Sir James MacDonald had to make his escape to Spain in 1615, he left the protection of his sister and the fortunes of the southern clan to the surviving leader, Colkitto MacDonald of Colonsay. Later again, when everything else had been lost to them, King James VII reconfirmed the islands of Colonsay and Oronsay to the representative of Clan Donald by charter as late as 1687; the sasine to the charter was registered on 19th October 1687, even whilst the enemy was at the gate - William of Orange landed at Torbay on 5 November 1688.

Modern times

This saw an end to the true monarchy of Scotland, and a virtual end to both MacDonalds and catholicism in Colonsay, which fell into the possession of Clan MacNeill of the south, followers of Clan Campbell. There followed two centuries of rapid agricultural and social improvement, accompanied by the removal of much of the original population and indeed most of their successors. From 1737, there was voluntary emigration to North Carolina, interrupted by the American War of Independence - after which came clearances, initially to North Carolina, and then to Pictou and later to Prince Edward Island. From 1815 or so, the exodus was no longer involuntary - all who could find the means began to flee and their places in Colonsay were filled by refugees from the slightly worse conditions which obtained in the nearby Ross of Mull, the property of the even-more ambitious "improver", the Duke of Argyll.

Conditions for much of the 19th century were very harsh in Colonsay but began to improve towards the later years, largely due to intervention by the state as regards medicine, education, communications and the application of Common Law. In 1904 Sir John Carstairs McNeill V.C. passed away, a bachelor, and the islands were purchased by the First Baron Strathcona and Mountroyal, the highly respected Canadian pioneer; his family still owns most of the island Colonsay, whilst Oronsay is now owned by the family of the late Ike Colburn, the respected American architect.

The early history of Colonsay and Oronsay may be studied in a wide variety of publications, as may details of the geology and natural history. To date, little attention has been paid to the 20th century and it is hoped that this site will provide a home for such material as may come to light. Anecdotal material, diaries or unpublished material will be much appreciated - please feel free to get in touch with byrne[at]colonsay.org.uk