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History & Heritage

A fascinating historical timeline

The first settlement on Colonsay dates back to the Mesolithic period, around 7,000 to 3,500 BC. The island appears to have been unoccupied during the Neolithic period (4,000 to 2,000 BC) but re-occupied with the arrival of the first farmers in the early Bronze Age, around 2,500 BC. There is evidence of numerous Bronze Age occupation sites.

At least nine forts on the island date to the Iron Age (1200 to 600 BC) and there are 10 pre-Reformation Christian sites, including the important remains of Oronsay Priory.

Echoes of the Viking period are plentiful, not least in surviving place names, while medieval and later periods are represented in the vernacular heritage of field-systems, fermtouns and architecture.

If you would like to find out more about the history of the island take a look at the outline notes kindly provided by the Commission on Ancient & Historic Monuments (Scotland)

8 historical highlights

The OS Pathfinder Map of Colonsay shows all the most important archaeological sites, or you can buy a local guidebook to find out more about the history and heritage. Here are eight highlights:

The Graveyard, Kilchattan

Historic graves and the substantial remains of 15th century Cille Chatan – The Chapel of St. Catan. Some of the gravestones are hard to read, a transcription can be seen at The Bookshop or online.

Colonsay Gravestones

Colonsay and Oronsay Heritage Trust

Various exhibitions displayed at the Baptist Church in Kilchattan.

Heritage Trust

Oronsay Priory

Founded by John the Good, Lord of the Isles, around 1340 AD the substantial remains are wonderfully atmospheric and include a nationally significant collection of carved mediaeval gravestones.

The 15th century consecrated High Altar is one of very few that has survived intact, while the High Cross, which is almost 3.7 metres tall, is notable because it is carved from a single slab with incredible skill.

Oransay Priory

Dún Éibhinn, Scalasaig

Dating from the Iron Age, the important national monument has a fascinating history of its own. In medieval times it was used as a base by the chieftain of Clan MacPhie, the governors of the island under Clan Donald.

It is said to have been the ancestral home of Somerled, progenitor of the Lords of the Isles, who in 1156 defeated the fleet of Godred, King of Man, as it emerged from the Sound of Islay.

Colonsay Parish Church, Scalasaig

The church, built in 1802, is always open to the public. It is built upon the site of a medieval chapel; a leaflet is provided with some details of the history and architecture. Please be careful to secure the door, so that sheep cannot enter and be trapped.

Colonsay Parish

Riasg Buidhe

The ruins of a typical 19th century clachan, north of Scalasaig, shows how houses were built “in a run” (i.e. as a terrace). 

Colonsay House Gardens

The formal garden is open to the public on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday afternoons, and also has a tea-room. Of note is the magnificent Monterey Pine, said to be the finest in Britain, and there’s a ninth century carved early Christian cruciform stone, which stands beside Tobar Odhran (The Well of St Odhran). 

Colonsay House

Built on the site of Kiloran Abbey, the first part of Colonsay House was built in 1722.  The curved Palladian style wings were added on in 1780.