A day trip to Oronsay

We both finished our novels (Days Without End by Sebastian Barry and Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunsmore) before bracing ourselves for a swim in the sea.


The Paps of Colonsay and Jura

We tried not to be put off by the sea temperature recorded on the boat as 13.3 C.  We did not leave for Oronsay until after noon when the tides favoured the southerly trip.  We left the shelter of our anchorage with the winds on the nose.  We were not in a hurry and we tacked under full sail towards Islay in the far distance.  The profile of the Paps of Jura – were on our Port bow.  Islay gave us a good heading while tacking as the wind and waves were variable and we were by now feeling the full swell of the Altantic.

Anchor’s away before our tack toward the Paps of Jura – a long tack when Ros managed to finish another book

As we were towing the dinghy (not recommended when sailing) we stayed on the starboard tack further than we needed to.  Perhaps this was as well because when we did eventually tack toward Oronsay we realised that we had both wind and tide pushing us sideways from our intended destination.


After our tack when heading for Oronsay looking back at the Paps of Jura

Having satellite navigation really helps when sailing into these rocky anchorages, but when it re-boots when you start the engine there is a period of panic – are you heading for a submerged rock or not? That minute or so before the screen returns seems endless.  The Oronsay anchorage on its eastern shore is approached between two rocky outreaches –  there are then submerged rocks to be circumnavigated.  Eventually we were able to anchor in 5m of water over sand – just in time for lunch.  Ian had been reading a book on Oronsay and wanted to go ashore – Ros preferred to stay aboard and finish her book “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes.  Here’s Ian’s account of his trip ashore:

“I headed upwind on the motor of the dinghy and beached on a lovely white sandy beach strewn with razorbill shells. I dragged the dinghy at least 100m up the beach to be safe from the rising tide.


The dinghy dragged 100m up the beach as the tide was rising – Milo in the far distance.

I’d landed not far from what is now called seal cottage, a ruin that used to be the old coal store – apparently small puffer steam ships beached there to unload the coal for the island.


The ruins of the Coal Store now called Seal Cottage

Further on the beach was the boathouse, mentioned in the anchorage book but not in the history of the island.  It had been modernised as a holiday cottage (I presume) as the curved entrance was now a picture window and the decor inside more suited to someone on a writing retreat.  Perhaps in its heyday there was a water channel up to and under the arch, but no longer – it was sand dunes for at least 100m before the sea.

The boat house with its arched window.  The sand in the foreground must have been a water channel once.  The view through the arched window shows the inside – note the old bath on its side in the bedroom beyond.

“I headed inland and as I reached the brow of the hill I could see Oronsay farm and the ruins of the Priory ahead in the distance.  But the track veered to the right – a quick check of the Ordinance Survey showed that this was the right way to avoid marshlands ahead.  Oystercatchers swooped overhead noisily trying to distract me from their nests, but by keeping to the track, I felt sure I would not encroach.  It was a long roundabout walk to the priory but I eventually got there.  I was greeted by wild screeches which quite alarmed me in this isolated place – was someone being murdered? – until I saw two male peacocks with their splendid plumage climbing a fire escape at one of the cottages.


The Abbey had no roof, but all the walls appeared firm, despite the warning notices. There were the remains of a beautiful cloister and the McNeill mortuary chapel.

I only saw one person going from the farm house to one of a group of three or four cottages – we waved but he did not stop to talk – his track suit had something about conservation on the back – so I assume it was the warden’s cottage.  I half expected him to come up and talk to me to tell me I’d left it too late to cross the causeway – but he didn’t.  Oronsay is cut off by the high tide.  At low tide you can cross a long causeway from Colonsay, even by car if you take the right route.  I’d read in “Lonely Colonsay” by Kevin Byrne that if you attempt the crossing by car you must put it in first gear and not stop – never go in reverse and follow the proposed dog-leg route exactly.  If you did get stuck – the advice was, “don’t worry – stand on the roof of your car, the tide only rises – 2-3m at the most so you will not drown”.  The prospect of my car being completely submerged in salt water would worry me even if there weret no risk of drowning.  Rather than go straight back to the boat, I wanted to explore this causeway – it was approaching high tide so I knew I would not see it as a sandy stretch, but I wanted to imagine what it would be like – I crested the hill and there before me was a cacophony of rocks and inlets and it was hard to imagine how it would dry out – fortunately I had the Ordnance Survey and was able to work it out.  Also, in the distance looking NW I could make out Ardskenish House where our friend Daphne said she stayed as a young girl.  I walked right to the end of the track to see it disappear into the water.  It must have then gone through a narrow entrance between two rocks – there was no other way – so I could only imagine small vehicles coming to Oronsay – but I only saw one – a land rover at the cottages.  On returning to Seal Cottage and the Dinghy, I saw a lone Swan or Heron – I think it was a Swan, but I could not understand why it was inland, unless it was attracted by the buckets of food put out by the farmers or the ranger.


View to the North to Colonsay from Oronsay showing the road which at low tide crosses a sandy causeway

Returning to the Dinghy, barely safe as the tide was lapping behind it, I found I’d forgotten to switch off the fuel and I could not start the motor– I rowed half way to Milo before trying again, no choke and full throttle assuming the engine was flooded – this time it worked and I was able to speed my way back to an anxious Rosamund.


An anxious Rosamund waiting to take my painter.

I’d been gone a long time and she’d been wondering what to do if I’d had a heart attack – how do you send out a May Day, how do you even operate the VHF?  After raising the anchor with Ros on the helm – we headed east – there was a cross wind and my favourite Aussie hat blew off.  Man overboard – Ros needed the practice  — this could have been me overboard.  She turned perfectly.  I saw the hat but unfortunately by the time I got the boat hook out it had sunk. That’s the second hat I’ve lost at sea, but now that my hair is growing back I can go bareheaded for a while before I buy another one.

We returned to our safe anchorage at Loch Stoasnaig – there were two French boats at anchor, but they were probably heading south and leaving early on the ebb tide, whereas we had the prospect of a lie-in as the flood tide to take us back up the Firth of Lorn would not start until after noon.


The rise of the full moon in the NE over Jura


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