Monday, November 15, 2021

2021 Virtual Cruise - Islands 21 & 22 - Oronsay & Colonsay

More delays. We ran out of beer, so the guide went on strike until we returned to Oban to stock up.  Once the bar was replenished we head over to Oronsay. The sea is calm, so a landing on the white sands of Oronsay's east beach is possible. 

A walk around the old priory is always fascinating. Much of the stonework is still in good shape, as the site had some restoration work done in the 1880s and 1920s. There are no remains left of the original monastery founded by St Columba in the 6th century. So what you see today dates to the 1300s, when the Priory was established by the Lord of the Isles.

Here and there in the walls of the church we find several ossuaries, where human bones were stored when a grave was reused. A practice that is frowned upon these days.

The highlight of the priory is Prior Colin's Cross. It stands twelve feet high and has a pristine crucifixion scene carved in relief: rib-bones protruding, the figure seemed to soar out of the stone, as if in the middle of a swan-dive.


Many of the historic, and elegantly carved tombstones are stored in what's called the Prior's House. Set on the floor are a couple of giant warrior effigies, stones that may have once marked the tombs of two Chief's of the Macfies of Colonsay. 


Our next stop is Beinn Oronsay, the tip-top of the island. From up here we can see the entire priory, and the adjacent Oronsay Farm buildings. Off in the distance (upper right of the next photo) we can see part of Eilean nan Ròn, seal island. It was on that low-lying reef that, in 1623, Colkitto found Malcolm McPhee hiding under a mound of seaweed. McPhee might have remained free, but screeching gulls gave him away better than any bloodhound could have done. John McPhee opens The Crofter and the Laird with a description of how the MacDonalds hunted down, then executed, this last chief of the MacPhees of Colonsay:

. . . captured him, refused him mercy, saying that a man who had never showed mercy should not ask for it, tied him to a standing stone, and shot him.

You will find Carraig Mhic a’ Phi, the stone Malcolm MacPhee was tied to and shot, at the chapel site near Balerominmore, a mile north of the Oronsay crossing.

The big cairn at the summit of the hill predates the OS trip-pillar by several centuries. The cairn actually has a name, Carn Cùl ri Èirinn, the cairn with its back to Ireland. Supposedly Ireland was seen from here by St Columba, as it's only 50 miles away. But every time I've been there it has been too cloudy to confirm the story.

Before returning to the ship we take advantage of the low tide to walk across the strand to Colonsay, where the guide leads us up the hillside to Am Binnean Crom, the bent pinnacle. The name comes from its hook-like profile, which from below gives it the look of an eagle’s beak. Due to a hole through the end of the stone, the eagle’s eye, a hole that could conveniently be used to attach a noose, it is also known as Hangman’s Rock. 

The guide, wanting to show off, sticks his hand through the hole. He gets stuck, so we leave him there and return to the ship. I was hoping to cast off before he got back, but he was too quick for us. He'd escaped by pouring a can of beer down the hole to grease it enough to escape. 

We then motor around the south of Oronsay, then turn north to anchor for the night in beautiful Kiloran Bay. The sands here are known as Traigh Bhan, the fair, or white beach. Traigh Dearg would be a better name, for when the sun sets, the sands glow with a brilliant reddish tinge.

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