COLONSAY'S FLORA & FAUNA
The information that follows is based upon a chapter in "Lonely Colonsay - Island at the Edge" by Kevin Byrne (House of Lochar 2010) and it is copyright.
We know that Colonsay's flora and fauna appeared within the last 10,000 years, following the retreat of the ice. It was once believed that there had been a land-bridge connecting neighbouring islands and the mainland, and that the range of species in any specific island reflected the length of time that its land-bridge had survived. This theory has now been largely discounted and I am grateful to Dr. Richard Gulliver for the following suggested mechanisms of colonisation as regards Colonsay:
Thus Colonsay supports a range of species that is in essence very similar to others in the Inner Hebrides, save that time, chance and the intervention of man has refined that range. The modern species list has a few obvious omissions – e.g. snakes, frogs, hedgehogs, weasels, stoats, badgers, hares, pine-martin, wildcat etc. Some of these creatures may never have reached Colonsay, but place-names and archaeological evidence suggest that others existed and became extinct locally. The Great Auk and the Red Kite are two obvious examples of the latter, whilst the otter – so plentiful today – was reported as having been locally extinct shortly before 1910. In 1594 Dean Monro recorded Oronsay as full of “fowmartis” and mentioned weasel bones, but Prof. Berry (1983) suggests that the latter may have been stoats, drawing attention to a small race of stoats living in Islay and Jura. Prof. Berry also mentions brown hares in Oronsay – “the last one was shot in 1927” – but it is possible that they were not native and had been introduced. The original Oronsay game-book still exists, having been preserved by the late Andrew S. MacNeill, and may well give details of other species that were extirpated. It was only in recent years that the feral goats were destroyed in Oronsay, although they continue to survive and thrive in Colonsay.
A total of 206 species of birds have been accepted as occurring on Colonsay and Oronsay. Of the historic records White-faced Storm-Petrel was the first record for Britain and Yellow-billed Cuckoo was the first record for Scotland. Since 2000 there have been 10 species recorded for the first time: Bean Goose, Little Egret, Red Kite, Grey Phalarope and Red-backed Shrike are all European species. Four species are North American vagrant waders: American Golden Plover, Lesser Yellowlegs, Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Pectoral Sandpiper; there was also a vagrant from Eastern Europe, Black-headed Bunting. Ninety-nine species of birds have been recorded as breeding. Of these, five species bred historically, but no longer do so, namely: Moorhen, Coot, Nightjar, Corn Bunting and Yellowhammer. Since 2000, four new breeding species have been recorded: Shoveler, Hen Harrier, Sand Martin and House Martin.
Colonsay has only one bird which is actually named after it but it is unsurprisingly one of the most common, the bird known in English as the eider but properly called, in the Gaelic of this region, lacha-Cholasach (“Colonsay's Duck”). Oddly enough, an alternative name is lach-Lochlannach (Norse or Danish Duck), which is a clear reference to its Scandinavian origins – the word “eider” is itself derived from the Icelandic name. Pennant visited Colonsay during his “ Tour of the Hebrides ” and mentioned a number of the local birds. On July 7 1772 he records "Take boat and visit Bird Island [i.e. Eilean an Eoin, east side of Oransay], and some other rocks divided by narrow passages, filled by a most rapid tide. Saw several Eider ducks and some shieldrakes [shelduck]. The islanders neglect to gather the down of the former, which would bring in a little money."
He continues: "This is the bird called by the Dean of the isles, Colk . From the circumstance of its depluming its breast, he fables that "at that time her flesh [moult] of feathers falleth off her wholly, and [she] sails to the main sea again, and never comes to land until the year end again, and then she comes with her new flesh of feathers; this flesh that she leaves yearly upon her nest has no pens [quills] in the feathers, but utter fine downs.""
The Dean's word "Colk", dating back to 1594, has a pleasing echo of "Colasach". The shelduck that Pennant mentions is still to be seen all around the shores, an extraordinarily beautiful bird. In springtime two or three broods of ducklings usually combine, as their mothers seem to operate a crèche system and will be seen with perhaps more than twenty fluffy little chicks following along. Sadly, not for long - the otter, the heron and the greater black-backed gull are ever present and the little tribe dwindles with the passing days. Pennant also mentions domesticated peacocks thriving at Oransay farm, and notes that "Barnacle [geese] appear here in vast flocks in September, and retire the latter end of April or beginning of May". Nowadays one would also note the Greenland white-fronted, greylag and Canada geese, and that all four species may be observed throughout the year. Both greylag and feral Canada geese are known to breed locally, and there are usually a few specimens of the other species detained by injury etc. Nonetheless, in wintertime, it is barnacle and Greenland white-fronted geese that form the largest flocks and they are unusual at other times.
David Jardine gives some details in “ The Birds of Colonsay and Oronsay ”. He mentions up to 650 barnacle geese over-wintering, and perhaps 250 white-fronted geese, together with resident populations of about 200 greylag and up to 100 Canada geese. Seemingly the latter were first introduced by Malcolm Clark, the then gamekeeper, in 1934 and we know that there were other non-native birds at about that time, including both black swans and flamingos in Loch Fada. The flamingos were to go down in local legend after the great freeze of 1947, when they were unfortunately caught in the ice – it is said that Lord Strathcona was urgently informed by telegram: “ MY LORD YOUR PELICANS IS DEAD ”.
Pennant climbed Beinn Oronsay - "Lofty and craggy, inhabited by red billed choughs, and stares [starlings]". The chough is nowadays a great rarity elsewhere, and its apparent abundance in Colonsay is a particular delight. It is a lively bird, always in company, often at play and very easily seen and heard, but it was not always like that. Writing in 1910, Murdoch McNeill says that "The Chough (Cnàmhach) used to nest in various places, but it has not been much in evidence for a number of years." Since the late 1970's careful study of its habits encouraged local farmers to modify farming techniques and these efforts have been rewarded by the local resurgence of this nationally threatened species.
Early research suggested that a balanced insect population was important to chough breeding-success, and that decomposing cowpats provide an essential habitat for several species of dung-beetle which, in its, turn provided a vital food resource. It had been noted that chough are attracted to the insects to be found under rotting seaweed along the shore and in 1993 Andrew Abrahams, a Colonsay beekeeper, suggested that a species of mining bee ( Colletes succinctus ) might also be significant. This was confirmed by subsequent study - in appropriate sand dunes, mining-bee larvae are to be found at a density of up to 1000 per square metre and at a depth of about 5 cm, providing a valuable food resource which is now known to be exploited in winter by chough (Clarke and Clarke, 1995).
Incredibly, despite their endangered and marginal condition, the chough is still under attack from man - in April 2002 one Matthew Gonshaw was successfully prosecuted at Thames Magistrate Court for crimes which included the theft of six chough eggs from Colonsay; he was sentenced to three months imprisonment. In fact, he was the first person to be imprisoned for a wildlife crime in Scotland .
Birds have always been vulnerable to man. As mentioned elsewhere, Symington Grieve discovered the skeleton of a great auk ( Pinguinus impennis ) in the Mesolithic middens that he excavated in Colonsay; this flightless seabird was easily captured and was an obvious food source until the species was eventually driven into extinction in the mid-nineteenth century. Less easily captured was the red kite ( Milvus milvus ), but it is said to have become extinct in Scotland after the last survivor was shot, reputedly in Colonsay, by somebody who wondered what it was. The red kite has since been re-introduced to Scotland.
On 23 October 1988, Colonsay's first recorded barn owl ( Tyto alba ) was discovered, but unfortunately it too was dead, having been mistaken for a pheasant! Rather more common is the sgarbh (also called sgart, green cormorant or shag), which was traditionally considered a great delicacy. Murdoch McNeill tells us that it used to be believed that after seven years a shag developed into a black-throated diver, and after a further seven years became a cormorant; in maturity, at twenty one years, it became a great northern diver. Presumably the supposed succession reflected the relative population strengths of each of the species. Gulls eggs were also highly prized for the table, and never really fell from favour - until the late 1970's a jar of pickled gulls eggs could be found on the bar counter of the Colonsay Hotel.
Some birds have survived other threats. In the 1990's a number of un-neutered cats escaped into the wild and turned feral; their numbers exploded and they began to prey upon young rabbits. Within a very brief period they had ousted rabbits from some areas and taken possession of the burrows - no ground-nesting bird was safe, but the lapwing seemed to be the main victim and its numbers plunged. Thankfully, the cats have now diminished in number and the lapwing is recovering, as is another of their victims, the tern. In connection with the latter it is worth noting that the common and Arctic tern are endangered birds throughout most of Scotland - research by Dunstaffnage Marine Laboratory identified mink as the main culprit. These dreadful pests have fortunately - as yet - failed to reach Colonsay, and the island has therefore become an important sanctuary for terns and other threatened native species. On the other hand, nest-desertion following disturbance by humans (however unintentional) is another cause of decline, so one should not picnic, stay to read one's book or go bathing in the nesting season if terns are in the vicinity.
Another great survivor in Colonsay and Oronsay is the corncrake ( Crex crex ), whose Latin name so accurately reflects its grating call. Its home is in the sub-Sahara and it makes the lengthy journey northwards to its breeding ground each spring, normally reaching Colonsay in the third week of April. It is a very shy bird and unwilling to be flushed – which made it highly vulnerable to traditional harvesting methods. Nowadays, mowers work outwards from the middle of the field and sacrificial strips are left uncut to provide a refuge. Unfortunately, there are other dangers – there are feral cats and even some un-belled domestic cats living locally which take a toll, and almost every year one or two are killed by cars. Although it is unlikely to be seen, the corncrake can usually be heard beside the road to Kiloran Bay, or near the “S” bends at Machrins, or in the vicinity of the graveyard. Interestingly, the Gaelic version of the Old Testament was translated directly from the Hebrew and in Exodus ch. 16 v 13 we find that it was the gearra-gort that providentially relieved the Israelites; the word is used for both quail and corncrake so one can decide for oneself.
Colonsay has many birds of prey, of which the most obvious is the buzzard. They will be seen at regular intervals almost everywhere, but particularly from the island road. They eat a lot of carrion, but will often be seen to fall upon a young rabbit or to take a starling - the actual kill is very sudden and impressive. Oddly enough, the buzzards seem to be no match for the ravens, who frequently attack them and put them to flight. In the area around Machrins one might notice a peregrine falcon, a merlin or a kestrel and in recent years the hen harrier has appeared. There is no evidence of breeding prior to 2005 and it is uncertain if the hen harrier will become a permanent resident as the absence of short-tailed field voles in Colonsay is said to make the island unsuitable for permanent occupancy.
The western cliffs of Colonsay host the largest breeding colony of seabirds in the southern Hebrides, particularly guillemots and kittiwakes, augmented by lesser but substantial numbers of razorbills and fulmars. The shags are another feature of the bird-cliffs, some of which nest low down, permitting a good view of both nests and sitting birds. All told, there are upwards of 25,000 breeding pairs on the cliffs, but their status cannot be taken for granted as they would be vulnerable to possible changes in food resources due to fishing or climate-change. Annual surveys monitor the situation and recently Seabird Protection Areas have been designated by the Scottish Government for important sites such as this; these are intended to protect the birds from “significant disturbance” and extend seaward for up to 2.5 miles.
Finally, one must mention the oyster-catcher, known locally as Gille-Bhrighde ("Brigid's Servant"). This bird provides a charming link with the pre-Christian era, when Brìd was an important member of the ancient pantheon, goddess of fertility and patroness of poetry and the arts. Brìd was incorporated amongst the Christian saints, and her straw dollies and other pagan emblems of fertility were adopted too. In one form, these developed into "St. Brigid's cross" which is woven from straw and is to this day in Ireland still dressed in bright ribbons upon her festival. The shape of her cross is picked out in black and white when the oyster-catcher takes flight, and it does not take much imagination to hear the salutation "Brìd! Brìd!" in its plaintive cry. It is a very common bird in Colonsay, and can still be seen at modern Eilean Treadhrach (north-east tip of Oronsay) which Blaeu's 17 th century map records as "Eilean Bhrideg". St. Brigid's Cross has been adopted for the logo of Colonsay's publishing company, House of Lochar.
Some of Colonsay's woodland is very old and pockets of native species are widespread. Birch, oak, aspen, hazel, rowan, willow, blackthorn, juniper and holly are all probably native to the island, and excellent examples will be noticed. Almost all these species have been exploited, with the exception of the undesirable aspen. According to legend in other islands, its leaves tremble in shame because its wood was used for the Crucifixion; in fact it is not even useful for firewood, let alone for joinery. Presumably the legend "explained" why it was reviled and extirpated in many areas, although here in Colonsay it thrives in gentle peace.
Birch wood is easily worked and can be used to make household utensils, and the bark is an important resource which can be used to make containers, also to produce glue and to flavour wine. Canoes can be made from birch bark, and the Tyrolean iceman carried arrows whose flights had been affixed by birch glue.
Oak has always been highly prized, and of course had important pre-Christian religious significance. The merits of oak are well known, but in the Colonsay context it should be noted that, like birch, it can be coppiced. This produces long, straight and strong poles which would be required for many purposes, including roofing, making sleds and for durable tools. The wood itself was used to make boats, and to produce charcoal for iron-working; the bark produces tannin for the curing of hides and also for dyeing. The coppicing at A' Choille Mhòr in Colonsay was first identified by John and Pamela Clarke in the 1980s and some of the trees may be very old. One may be sure that the resource was exploited by the religious communities of Colonsay and Oransay, and that therefore coppicing was abandoned at some date following the dissolution of the monasteries but outwith living memory; as yet, little authoritative information is available. I am therefore most grateful to Dr. Richard Gulliver for the following remarks:
Although the coppicing of oak has a long tradition in Scotland, the main period was the 18 th c. and early 19 th c., and this was probably the heyday in Colonsay also.
In woods where coppicing was properly organised, the stools were relatively evenly placed, whereas the stools at A' Choille Mhòr are somewhat erratically distributed. This indicates to me that (i) coppicing was not undertaken over a long period of time (ii) coppicing was done on an “as and when” basis. Good coppice management involves cutting blocks or compartments of a wood at one time, and then leaving that block for e.g. 25 years in the case of oak before returning to it again. (Often 25 years was the period used for oak coppice in lowland Scotland in the 18th century). The adjacent block might be coppiced in the following year and so on, so the cycle would run over many rotations. I do not see signs of this level of management in A' Choille Mhòr, although the longer ago it was abandoned, the poorer the evidence.
Several individual trees are multi-stemmed. This is usually an indication of coppicing. However a felled broad leaved tree will produce shoots from its base. If these are ungrazed, a multi-stemmed tree will result.
During coppicing the new growth from the stool needs to be protected from grazing. Similarly in a wood where timber production is important, the grazing must not be so intensive that regeneration from seed is prevented. Grazing animals can be excluded by temporary fences e.g. made of wattle, or semi permanent fences; turf dykes (sometimes stone faced); or all-stone dykes. The absence of remains of stone dykes and apparent absence of remains of turf dykes at either A' Choille Mhòr, or A' Choille Beag suggests that woodland management was not the main, sole objective. These woods would probably be used for several purposes, including winter shelter and spring grazing.
Overall therefore I suspect that coppicing on Colonsay was small in scale and organisation. However it is intriguing that that A' Choille Mhòr is sited adjacent to Port Olmsa and, for a period, it was served by a well-made track to Colonsay House; i.e. bulky items could be transported from this wood with less difficulty than many other locations on Colonsay.
In passing, I am told that some scholars believe that there was no monastery on Colonsay. Rather, some early records refer to Oronsay and some to Colonsay (meaning Oronsay). Later people interpreted these two locations as separate, whereas only one monastery was originally intended.
Hazel nuts have already been mentioned (Chapter 1) as a protein-rich food source which was evidently exploited on an almost industrial scale by the Mesolithic inhabitants of Colonsay; "Before cereal cultivation, undoubtedly the most important plant food throughout north-western Europe were the nuts of this often many-stemmed, tall bush or small tree. The nuts are rich in oil, protein, starch and sugar, with vitamins B1, C and trace elements." (Dickson and Dickson, 2000). The tree itself coppices well and produces sturdy, pliable wands which are excellent for use in making creels, baskets, lattices and wattle. Of course it was also essential for the wattle-and-daub construction of walls. It should be remembered that wattle-and-daub was already of incredible antiquity even before St. Columba used it for his religious and domestic buildings, and that it was still used for housing as late as the 18 th century. Dr. Gulliver points out that hazel also “self-coppices”, as many plants produce young shoots from the base, year after year. In some years these will be grazed out e.g. in the Mesolithic by red deer; but in others they remain ungrazed. After several years one has a multi-stemmed tree with a few poles which resemble coppiced-by-man hazel. “Competition” between poles on the plant (self-thinning) ensures that only a small number of really large poles are present under natural circumstances.
Although we know that hazel was abundant in Colonsay in ancient times (in fact, some people used to believe that its Gaelic name “Calltuinn” may have named the island), it is less common today and, except at Scalasaig, produces very few nuts. On the other hand, willow thrives in modern times, and its woven wands (“wickerwork”) were also used for wattle. Wattle was important as the base for pathways across soft ground and for fords, of which there would have been many in Colonsay, and very probably willow was more suitable for this purpose, being less likely to rot in damp conditions. Much of the willow or sally ( Salix) of Colonsay is a scrub form, Sùileag or round-eared willow, and of little value, but grey sallow (Dubh Sheileach) is also common and was used for creel-making and also for tanning leather. Murdoch McNeill mentions that it was favoured by small boys for making whistles, and that the non-native Seileach Uisge or common osier ( Salix viminalis ) was used for making baskets.
Rowan (mountain ash; Sorbus aucuparia ) produces excellent, straight-grained wood which can be readily worked and which also makes a good fire; it was thought by Murdoch McNeill to be perhaps the only locally native ash and its merits are no doubt reflected in the affection in which it is held. Hardly a house in Colonsay is without its rowan, although few people will admit that they have it as a deterrent to witches and bad luck; the berries alone are a sufficient justification, as they are very attractive to small birds.
On the other hand, the unrelated common ash ( Fraxinus excelsior ) may also be found in Colonsay - there are fine examples in a deep gully somewhat north of the cairn in A' Choille Mhòr . Although the trees have mostly fallen, they have living shoots. It seems that this gully is Glaic an Uinnsinn (“Ash Dell”) but Murdoch McNeill points out that “Near the beginning of last century [c.1800] a path from Colonsay House was made through Coille-mhòr to a summer-house [An Tigh Còintich] at Cul-salach, and it is possible that the ash-trees were then planted”.
Both hawthorn (non-native in Colonsay) and blackthorn were used for hedging purposes, and of course blackthorn produces sloes, the only stoned fruit that is native to the island. (Curiously enough, although blackthorn remains quite widespread in the island, in recent years it appears not to have borne fruit in quantity).
Turf banks (dykes) are a very old system of producing a stock-proof boundary. Their effectiveness could be increased by planting gorse or occasionally hawthorn on top. Alternatively dead branches of these shrubs could be utilised. In some parts of Scotland wattle was used to surmount the turf wall. Time has reduced their height, often they are now only 50cm or less; frequently they follow a slightly sinuous course across the landscape.
There were a variety of ways that hawthorns could be planted to make hedges in the 18 th c., 19 th c. and into the 20 th c. Some were planted into level ground, some planted on a new low bank, e.g. about 30cm tall, and some planted on taller banks, on the ditch side. Some were planted in front of an existing stone wall, or on the ditch side of an existing bank which had a facing of stone courses. The standard system was for new hawthorn hedges to be cut-and-laid when they reached a suitable size. This hedge-laying is an art which is best developed in regions well supplied with hedges. After many years of neglect, the signs of previous periods of laying become lost, especially if the hawthorns are supplemented by new plants developing from seed. Any ‘perched hedges' which topped the older, taller banks, would have been exposed and stunted, with a limited root volume. Little management would have been required. These older turf banks could be stone faced, or contain a good percentage of stone. (Source: Dr. Richard Gulliver, pers. corr. )
Dr. Gulliver suggests that the hawthorn hedges very close to Kiloran Farm and Colonsay House were probably 19 th c. or early 20 th c. in origin. Some bounding the road have the remains of a stone wall and bank behind them. The wall frequently drops down to a ditch and is often the ‘facing' of an earth bank. This can give rise to some interesting speculations as to the origins of the hawthorns. A stone-faced bank coming to the end of its life may have been planted with hawthorn on its road side, the wall providing some protection for the young hawthorn plants from stock grazing in the field. It is also possible that sometimes there may have been fruiting hawthorns in the vicinity for a long period, with progressively more hawthorn plants becoming spontaneously established on the road side of the wall. In this position they would be lightly grazed (e.g. by driven cattle) compared with the adjacent field, or effectively ungrazed. If the hedges were not laid, but simply ‘topped', gaps in the bottom could have been filled by new seedlings. (Thanks go to Angela Skrimshire and Netta Titterton for help with this section)
The taller turf banks are generally older, usually along the line of a boundary or march. In many places, sections of these centuries-old "dykes" or boundaries have survived – there are good examples beside Loch a' Raon a' Bhuilg, along the Balnahard march and along the northern march of Scalasaig approaching Loch Fada. In their day, all such dykes provided warmth and shelter to the livestock and created a completely stock-proof barrier. It is curious to reflect just how much more expensive, unattractive and inefficient is the modern post-and-wire substitute which is now the fashion, erected with massive subsidy and inbuilt obsolescence.
Juniper had important medicinal properties as a diuretic and according to McNeill yielded an oil of medicinal value. He mentions also that "the green branches were burned for fumigating houses after infectious diseases", and that the berries were used for flavouring whisky. The same authority mentions that holly ( cuilionn ) was favoured for the making of walking-sticks, and that birdlime is produced from its bark, boiled and mixed with nut-oil. Birdlime, of course, was used from time immemorial to trap small birds as a food source.
Scotland has three native conifers, the towering Scots pine ( Pinaceae family), the prostrate juniper ( Cupressaceae family), and the yew ( Taxoceae family). Of these, probably only juniper is native to Colonsay, although the Scots pine may have been grown from seed native to mainland Scotland. Common ash may have been introduced by the McNeills c. 1800, and sycamore followed soon afterwards. The common Rhodendendron ponticum was an ill-judged introduction of c. 1850 which threatened to engulf the entire island and is now the subject of a major eradication scheme. It does not support wildlife and its flowers are poisonous to bees. Colonsay allegedly held the “last surviving colony of the Old British Black Bee”, which was destroyed after the hard winter of 1947 when the ponticum flowered profusely and early. Fortunately this anecdotal information is not completely accurate - the bee in question ( Apis mellifera mellifera ) exists in a number of locations and even here in Colonsay has been nursed to recovery through the efforts of local bee-keeper Andrew Abrahams. Andrew has been working with Colonsay's black bees since the 1970's and now has 60 hives, each with about 50,000 inhabitants (“ Scotsman on Sunday ”, 24 January 2010). Nonetheless, the incident underlines the need to totally eradicate Rhodendendron ponticum.
There is an outstanding flora with significant local variations across the various habitats. The yellow iris or Seileastair will be encountered everywhere - being so common it is apt to be overlooked, but it is very beautiful. Almost as widespread is marsh marigold, whose luscious yellow flowers will be seen in many of the roadside ditches. The flowers of the machair (open dune-systems) are truly delightful and in certain areas the heath spotted orchids are like carpets. Honeysuckle is a particular feature of Colonsay and its heady scent can be almost overpowering.
There are six forms of Hypericum or St. John's wort that have been recorded in Colonsay. Tutsan (" all healthy ") was once widespread in the grazings and, despite its name, is said to have induced madness in livestock if eaten. In some places, as many as four different types of St. John's Wort can be found within a radius of a couple of metres.
On the wetter ground one will notice bog-cotton, bog-myrtle, bog-asphodel and marsh lousewort, and closer inspection will reveal up to four species of insectivorous plants, including the attractive round-leaved sundew. This plant entraps tiny insects upon its delicate, sticky hairs then closes its leaves and digests them. Like all plants, the round-leaved sundew is now protected but Murdoch McNeill (1910) tells us that "some ladies mix the juice with milk so as to make an innocent and safe application to remove freckles and sunburns". (Since 1981 it has been illegal to intentionally uproot this or any wild plant, unless you are the landowner or have the landowner's permission.)
The bog-myrtle was not without its uses - in former days, children were given an infusion of the leaves as a cure for "worms". It was used in tanning, as a substitute for hops in making "heather ale", and the crushed leaves are even said to act as an insect-repellent.
Bracken ( Pteridium aquilinum ) will be noticed upon many of the hills - in the past this had a commercial value in some places, being burned to produce potash until over-exploitation depleted the resource and killed the trade. A nineteenth century record relating to Jura (part of this parish at the time) suggested that this had happened there. Although it is unlikely that bracken was ever harvested commercially in Colonsay, it may have been used for bedding or thatching. At all events, it has been allowed to spread until it has now blanketed many hundreds of acres; some attempt to control it has been made in recent years, including spraying by helicopter. Unfortunately, the chemical is indiscriminate and destroys other, more desirable ferns.
In point of fact, bracken was no great scourge historically until seasonal, low-intensity grazing by cattle came to be replaced by intensive stocking with sheep. As Dr. Gulliver points out: “Any cattle that were over-wintered on the hill would trample the delicate [bracken] crosiers as they came through the ground; sheep being lighter and with smaller hooves do not have the same effect”. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that sheep are a natural enemy of man – as sheep are introduced, human population will fall (and land will deteriorate), thus reducing the available labour force for activities which are quickly rendered marginal. Of course, the demand for potash had intensified with the success of the Industrial Revolution (c. 1760 – 1830) as it was required for the glass, soap and bleaching industries. It was quickly discovered that the available labour could produce larger quantities by burning kelp until, with the ending of the Napoleonic wars, the importation of guano was to put an end to kelping as well. Bracken did have other uses, for thatching, animal litter, fuel and compost material etc., and Dr. Gulliver suggests that in Colonsay, due to a combination of the technical nature of the process, transportation difficulties, and local requirements for the basic resource, it was more probably used for such purposes than burned for potash. Walkers should note that its spores are reputedly carcinogenic, and that it should perhaps be avoided from mid-August until it has died down in November.
Common reed ( Phragmites australis, a.k.a. Phragmites communis ) grows in fine stands that may readily be enjoyed from the public road – for example, on the right-hand side of the road as one approaches the graveyard from Port Mòr, or close to An Dèabhaidh (where the road passes across Loch Fada). This was sometimes used for thatching in former times, and today it is valued for its highly decorative plumes. Rush was a more popular thatch, especially Juncus articulatus (jointed rush), which lasted much longer; it grows mainly by the sea – e.g. Port an Rafain (“Jointed Rush Harbour”) in Balavetchy. Dr. Gulliver mentions that the most common thatching rush was probably a mixture of Juncus articulatus and a hybrid with sharp-flowered rush, Juncus acutiflorus x articulatus , the hybrid being somewhat more common locally. In 2009, two fragile stands of Bullrush ( Typha latifolia ) appeared in new locations, beside the road at the Black Gate [junction of B8085 with B8086] and in Upper Kilchattan – unfortunately, they were both mutilated that year by persons unknown and it is questionable if they will survive. There is an established stand near Ardskenish farmhouse.
A plant of curiosity interest is a garden introduction, the familiar montbretia. This originated in South Africa and is likely to have been grown in the formal gardens of Colonsay House in the nineteenth century. Everywhere that it was in cultivation, it was suddenly rendered unfashionable after 1879. This was the year in which a Frenchman, Victor Lemoine of Nancy, successfully crossed Tritonia aurea with Montbretia pottsii to produce Crocosmia x c rocosmiiflora (which was then known as Montbretia crocosmiiflora) . The new orange-coloured variety became all the rage, and the purer, flame red pottsii was rooted out and given away - but here in Colonsay it can still be seen in the gardens of the hotel and of the miller (Mill Cottage, formerly Torr an Tuirc). Keen-eyed visitors will note it in a number of other locations, and it also survives on the islands of Loch an Sgoltaire and Port Olmsa, the ghosts of former "rustic" pleasure gardens.
As one explores the island, one is struck by the very wide range of ferns, mosses, lichens and fungi that are encountered. Every rock is decorated by lichen, every hollow is enchanted by mosses and fungi, many of the trees play host to their own colonies of them all. These organisms are intolerant to pollution and are able to thrive because the island's modest rainfall comes largely from the Atlantic ocean. Elsewhere in Britain, throughout much of the country, the rain has been tainted by industrial activity and falls as dilute sulphuric acid. A total of 342 lichen taxa were recorded by the late Dr. Francis Rose in a pioneering study published in 1983, including two species which were new to the British list, and it was suggested that many more were yet to be identified.
Because Colonsay's climate is so very mild, the growing season can often extend into late Autumn - but whilst individual examples of herbaceous perennials can be found flowering at almost any time of year, May, June and July are of course the best months to enjoy the widest range of flowers.
There are no snakes in Colonsay, also no moles, squirrels, hedgehogs, foxes, stoats, weasels, badgers, frogs or toads (although a toad was discovered in October 2000, having presumably arrived in a load of hay). Nor are there any deer, although this may not always have been the case. Such bones as have been found in archaeological research were believed to have been imported to the island, either as food or so that the bone itself could be processed for secondary use. The occasional carcass is washed ashore in Colonsay – presumably as a result of an ill-timed passage from Jura to Scarba – and there are obvious tool-uses for antlers and scapulae. On the other hand, Symington Grieve found “abundant evidence of the presence of the red deer ( Cervus elephas ) all through the deposits at Caisteal-nan-Gillean, Oronsay, and also in the lower strata of the Crystal Spring Cavern [Uamh Ùr]. The evidence obtained by my excavations inclines me to the opinion that red deer were numerous upon these islands during the period of the occupation of Caisteal-nan-Gillean, but afterwards gradually decreased in numbers until they were probably exterminated about the eighth or ninth century.” Wild boar ( Sus scrofa ) finds are more readily persuasive that it was a native species, as there less obvious secondary uses other than as food, and there is some supportive place-name evidence.
On the positive side, Colonsay does have many species of creature that we all remember from our childhood, and which seem so much rarer now. There are, for example, plenty of dragon-flies on all the lochs, and there is a tiny shrew ( Sorex araneus ) to be found in leafy brakes. One can easily see common lizards basking on sun-baked rocks and walls, and may sometimes come across a family of slow-worms, the legless form of lizard that can be mistaken for a snake. Look out for and the aptly-named hawkmoth, looking just like the eye of a fierce bird and presumably giving fright to predators. There are also “doodlebugs” (as this writer knew them as a child), those flying “stag beetles” like giant bumble-bees that are encountered on a summer's evening; I now know them really to be cockchafers, rather than stag beetles, which are not recorded in Colonsay. Apparently the cockchafer ( Melontha vulgaris ) can be a dreadful scourge in some places, developing in some years “countless myriads, the perfect insects stripping their trees of their entire foliage, and the larvae destroying, by devouring the roots, not only the grass of pastures, but crops of all kinds of farm and garden produce”. In a report to the Académie des Sciences in 1868, it was calculated that the department of Seine-Infériure alone had suffered recent damage in excess of one million pounds sterling. There is a similar beetle in America, where it is called May-bug or Doodlebug: “such is the completeness with which the larvae do their work on the roots of grass, that turf may sometimes be peeled off in large sheets, like a carpet from a floor” ( Cassell's Natural History , 1896). One can easily imagine how the name reached war-time Britain, but luckily enough this creature is, in Colonsay, utterly benign.
Rock pools are rich in spider crabs and sea anemones, limpets, winkles and dog-whelks; mussels abound, anyone with a rake can gather cockles and the more astute will have no trouble catching razor-shells (also known as sout-fish) on the sandbanks in a spring tide. Both sea and loch are frequented by otters ( Lutra lutra ) which, in early summer, can be seen together as the youngsters are taught to swim. The dog-otter absents himself from the rearing process, but the female will be seen close-inshore with one or two young – in principle, be alert near locations which are calm, where you are down-wind, and where fresh-water is entering the sea.
Some creatures are most easily seen from the sea, providing a good excuse for a boat trip. Although the otter ( Lutra lutra ) is actually no rarity, it can be somewhat elusive but it is often seen from boats, as are dolphin and minke whales. Common seals ( Phoca vitulina ) will be seen at Port Olmsa and Colonsay is the major breeding centre within the Firth of Lorne for the grey Atlantic seal, Halichoerus grypus . This noble creature abounds in the rocks and skerries all around the island, but the major colony is at Eilean nan Ròn off Oransay. In addition to locally nesting birds, one will often encounter gannets and (more rarely) shearwaters, puffins and even petrels.
Some of Colonsay's wildlife has a remarkable lifecycle and is subject to global influences; the corncrake ( Crex crex ) has its home in sub-Saharan Africa, and the Arctic tern actually travels from one end of the world to the other, 18,000 km. each way, spending part of its year (despite its common name) in Antarctica. In this context one must remember the European eel ( Anguilla anguilla ), still common in Colonsay but whose total population has fallen by almost 50% in recent years. This remarkable creature reproduces in the Sargasso sea and its leptocephali or larvae then migrate across the Atlantic to colonise fresh, brackish and coastal waters throughout Europe and parts of North and West Africa .
Almost 25,000 people depend upon the European eel for their living, and it appears that one problem affecting the species is the illegal harvesting and export of tiny "glass eels", initially to stock Asian farms and thence to supply Japanese tables. There is also the possibility that global warming is affecting ocean currents, and interfering with migration patterns. Despite these problems, one can still inspect the tiny elvers in Colonsay's isolated hilly lochans and marvel as to how they got there. As children, we were told that the larvae came down with the rain and, as adults, it still sounds fairly convincing.
Although Colonsay is host to a number of rare species, many of which are small and inconspicuous, these are properly the concern of specialists. There is a species of water-beetle said to have been unknown elsewhere when first discovered in A' Choille Mhòr in the 1980s, there are rare hybrid flora, there are interesting underwater plants in the lochs and around the coastline, there is even an unusual antipodean land-shrimp which arrived with an exotic specimen tree for Colonsay House. For the layman, the special charm of the island lies simply in the range and profusion of more familiar species and in the very varied habitats. As one explores each area of the island, one will be amazed by the diversity of the wildlife.