COLONSAY AND ITS SHIPS
“A Cholla mo run, A Cholla mo run,
Seachainn an tur, thoir ort an dun,
Tha mise an laimh.
A Cholla mo ghaoil, a Cholla mo ghaoil,
Seachainn an caol, thoir ort am fraoch,
Tha mise an laimh”
These lines from “Piobaireachd Dhunaobhaig” or “The Piper's Warning to his Master” probably commemorate an event in early May 1615, when Colla Ciotach MacDonald of Colonsay was on the point of sailing into a Campbell trap at Dunivaig in Islay (beside the modern distillery of Lochavullin). Dunivaig (“The fortress of the fleet”) was the very headquarters of Clan Donald of the south, descendants of the Lords of The Isles, and had recently been captured by the enemy. Coll was returning to see if his enemies had withdrawn and was at first reassured to hear the familiar welcome of his personal piper - but suddenly, almost too late, he recognised a false note and turned at once for the open sea. His piper had been captured and forced to play the Piobaireachd, but had dared to use it instead for a warning. The pipers fingers were all broken by the furious Campbells, to ensure that he could never play again; and to this day, the tune is played without emendation, in its defective form.
“Coll, here's a secret, Coll, here's a secret
Turn away from the tower, get away from the fort
For I am a captive....”
Coll himself survived another 40 years and ended his career in the summer of 1647, when - as the last accredited Royalist commander to remain in the field - he surrendered his commission and the castle of Dunivaig to the Covenanting forces. By then he was 77 years of age and he was taken to Dunstaffnage to be hanged by the Campbells, within comfortable view of their castle window. Perhaps in tribute to his seamanship and naval reputation, the gallows that they employed was the mast of his own galley.
Although Colkitto (Colla MacDonald) is the most famous of Colonsay's seafarers, the island has a very special geographical location which made it a key to communications and trade for over a thousand years.
In the early days, people wished to travel in straight lines (to avoid tacking), to remain within sight of land, and to avoid dangerous currents and overfalls. Thus any craft wishing to travel from (say) the Isle of Man to (say) Ardnamurchan or the Long Isle would likely seek to avoid the Mull of Kintyre and the notorious currents of the sea of Moyle and would often take the option of being dragged across the narrow isthmus of Tarbert, where a greased slipway made for an easy task and where Magnus Barelegs famously proved that a sail can assist on land as well as at sea. In the same way, craft from the Antrim coast would avoid the shorter crossing to Kintyre and head first for Islay; in the 17th century up to 30,000 gallowglass or mercenaries would cross each year from Scotland into Ireland, using Islay as their departure point. They made simple craft of hides stretched upon osier or willow frames and crossed in fleets; the craft were then dismantled and the skins sent back in a single craft to repeat the process. The whole process was aided by detailed knowledge of the tides - leave the area of Texa at about 2pm on a neap-tide (i.e. when currents are least powerful) and you will find yourself at Rathlin by about 6pm with no more effort by sail or oars than is needed to hold a course.
All this was very clear - but then what? For the mariner to continue northwards outside of Islay was to go through dangerous overfalls, far from the sight of land and to windward of many perils. To take the passage inside of Jura was to choose between the narrow and dangerous passage near Belnahua, where any enemy could easily attack, or instead the awesome horror of Corrievreckan, the second biggest whirlpool in the world. Fortunately there was a third choice - the sheltered and convenient passage of the Sound of Islay, whose predictable current was no more frightening than a moving walkway in an airport would be today. Thus the Sound of Islay became a major thoroughfare and Colonsay gained a spectacular significance - whoever controlled Colonsay had control of all significant west coast communications.
So it was that Colonsay came to lie at the heart of mighty events. When St. Columba decided to bring the benefits of Christianity and civilisation into primitive Alba, he was not a pioneer. Since 497 the Irish had been in full possession of an important colony here, known as Dalriada and roughly comparable with the bounds of modern Argyll. Based at Dun Add in Kintyre, the colony had extended its influence to embrace Colonsay and even Iona, although Mull was mostly in the hands of the Picts; Colonsay itself was occupied by Colla Uais (“Noble Coll”), a first cousin of St. Columba and a leading scion of an Irish royal house, and for this reason it was to Colonsay that the saint made his way.
Local tradition has it that he landed in Traigh nam Barc at Port na h'Iurach and established his first foundation in the very shadow of his cousin's fortress of Dun Cholla, on the site now occupied by the mediaeval Teampull na Ghlinne. From here he is said to have negotiated for a “forward position” in Iona, on the border with Pictland, but he never lost his links with Colonsay and his especial love for Oransay, which was known then as Hinba and became his special spiritual home. Adomnan, St. Columba's biographer describes it well, identifying it by its “bag-shaped arm of the sea” and by the fact that it lay on the direct sea-route to Ireland from Iona. The “bag-shape” refers, of course, to An Fhaoghail, the tidal strand which at high tides separates Oransay from its sister, Colonsay. And the sea-route reflects the ease of a passage from Iona to Oransay, possible in either direction with the prevailing wind and without tacking; the onward route to Ireland can continue either side of Islay or even through the middle, where an important trade route connected Loch Gruinart and Loch Indaal and eventually led to the important administrative centre established at Finlaggan Loch by the Lords of the Isles.
Whilst thinking of St. Columba it is pleasant to recall some of his miracles as recounted by his hagiographer, Adomnan - in one of these miracles St. Kenneth is sitting quietly at his chapel in Colonsay, at the head of Traigh nam Barc, when he becomes aware that St. Columba is in danger at sea. Going outside, St. Kenneth prays fervently and by apparent telepathy guides St. Columba and his craft towards him; anyone who stands where St. Kenneth stood can see how the geographical facts accord with this ancient tradition, and it takes little imagination to picture the joyful scene as the saintly friends embraced one another in relief.
The simple boats of the early Christians were soon to be outclassed by more powerful craft, the trading and fighting vessels of the Norsemen. The placenames of Colonsay are thick with words introduced as this time, including the very names of the islands. Such names as Iona, Scarba, Texa, Luing are also Norse, but the names of Colonsay, Oransay and Jura are rather more special, since they seem to have been chosen for sentimental reasons by the colonists, as Dunedin, New York or Nova Scotia were chosen in more recent days.
On the shores of Lake Vanern in modern Sweden is a small island, Kolso which has an a pentacle Orso (surrounded by wet ground and accessible only in dry weather); far out in the lake is a small island, the refuge of wild animals, called Juro. Kolso is the site of a battle - the last battle ever fought in Scandinavia by Magnus Barelegs, and one in which he received a humiliating defeat, for his captured soldiers were all publicly thrashed upon their bared backsides. Magnus Barelegs returned to the Hebrides and there he stayed, but the landscape is very like that which he had left and he brought some placenames with him. Port na Luinge, Holmfeld, Grunnd an Duin, Lamalum etc. - there are simply dozens of Norse words extant in Colonsay today, and these reflect the significance of their settlement. There are more Viking remains in Colonsay and Oransay than in any comparable location, including full scale ship burials.
In the sands above Kiloran Bay is one of the most significant burials, discovered in 1882. The find included “the crouched burial of a man accompanied by an iron sword, a spearhead, an axehead, a shield-boss, fragments of an iron pot, four bronze studs and a balance with seven decorated weights.” There was also horse harness, the skeleton of a horse, and the rumoured remains of another body, possibly a servant or slave. Coins were also found, suggesting that the burial took place after 850 A.D., and the entire site was littered with the rivets and clench nails which were all that remained of the Viking trader's ship. Perhaps most interestingly of all, 4 stones were discovered with crosses rudely carved upon them, as if this grave, looking out towards distant Iona, had some Christian association. If so, it is totally unique, since no such association has ever been discovered in any other Viking ship-burial. The artefacts from this burial form a significant display in the new Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.
Although the Vikings lived for many years in Colonsay, they seem to have had a main settlement at Machrins on the west coast, on the present golf course. There, on the open machair (plural: machairean = modern “machrins”), will be found the scant remains of their former habitations, their burials and even one of the eponymous “Viks” or natural harbours. The second tee of the golf course is on top of a small homestead from those days, Dunan Gach Gaoithe, and a great battle between the natives and the invaders is remembered as “Latha cath nan sguab air traigh an tobair fhuair ri taobh tuath Dun Ghallain” - “The day of the battle fought with staves on the strand of the cold well, to the north side of the Fort of the Strangers”. To the south of the main bay is the Viking harbour, a sheltered creek, invisible from the sea and a perfect haven for overwintering and repairs. Out on the promontory is their leader's fortress, Dun Ghallain; it is a magnificent monument and quite clearly unique - all the other (bronze age) forts in Colonsay inter-communicate by line of sight, but Dun Ghallain stands alone. Elsewhere in the vicinity, excavation has revealed extensive bakehouse facilities, almost on an industrial scale. An ancient chapel, that of St. Ciaran, has been adopted as a Viking burial ground and in one inhumation it was found that the Norseman had been buried with his dog, presumably a treasured pet. The remains were studied and the dog was found to have been very old, crippled with arthritis and of a breed not unlike a modern corgi; when the examination was complete, the remains were returned to Colonsay and properly re-interred.
When the Viking period ended, Colonsay was at the heart of things again. Famously, Somerled defeated the King of Man, Godred, in a naval engagement off Rubha Mhaill in the sound of Islay, on the night of Epiphany 1156. As locally understood, Somerled had been planning this engagement for some time and had assembled in secret a fleet of eighty vessels; he also had a secret weapon - his fleet was fitted with rudders, whereas Godred still relied upon the cumbersome steering oar (which stuck out on the “starboard” side and was a thorough nuisance). It is not known where Somerled kept his forces, but there are unexplained and unexcavated military establishments in Colonsay at Lamalum and Dun Uragaig which might provide a clue, to say nothing of the well-documented remains at Machrins. At any event, having provoked his quarry, Somerled is said to have concealed his own fleet behind the Post Rocks at Rubha Mhaill and, when the Viking fleet appeared, to have fallen upon it with ferocity. The Vikings could not turn back against the current, could not turn against the prevailing southwesterly wind and instead were driven back along the lee and inhospitable shore of Jura. Although officially recorded as “inconclusive”, the battle raged for hours and is said to have been visible to the fascinated inhabitants of Colonsay, standing along the shore.
Inconclusive or not, Somerled got his way and went on to found that dynasty which rose to prominence as the Lords of the Isles, the House of Clan Donald. Not surprisingly, their ships were vital to the new dynasty and of such importance that they took to depicting them upon their gravestones. There is a wealth of magnificent monumental masonry throughout Argyll, with good collections at Kilmartin, Saddell and Iona; but much of this material was damaged or destroyed in the fury of the Reformation - in Saddell, the zealots tore the structures apart with their bare hands, and in Iona more than 200 monuments were thrown into the sea. Ancient tombs, including those of Kings and Queens, were deliberately defiled and the sacred buildings were converted into byres for the beasts of the fields. Fortunately, in lonely Colonsay, there was a lacuna - the Reformation never actually arrived. Eventually, the buildings of Kiloran Abbey were indeed destroyed, in order to make way for a new mansion house; but in Oransay the Priory buildings and all that they contained merely decayed gently and without violence - so it is that the extraordinary collection of gravestones has been preserved, together with images of hunting scenes, knights and ladies and the all-important Highland Galley or Birlinn . This is an important resource and in recent years was carefully recorded by a team of specialists from the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments in Scotland.
Dean Munro made a tour of the Isles in 1549, and eventually published his notes in 1594. In connection with Colonsay and Oransay, he noted “convenient havens for Heyland galeys, and shald (shoaled) at the shores”. The Statutes of Iona (witnessed by MacDuffie of Dun Eibhin in Colonsay) eventually sought to put restrictions on the vessels that people could possess, as the government found them to be a threat.
“The chiefs and greater men kept either birlinns or galleys, and made considerable journeys in them. MacNeil of Barra was able to raid Valentia (in southwest Ireland), and in 1545 Domhnall Dubh was supported in his rising by 17 chiefs with 4000 men in 180 galleys. The “ Birlinn Chlann Raghnaill ” is a most beautiful and evocative poem by Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair which describes a journey from South Uist to Ireland (via the tip of Oransay) and includes an excellent description of the practical aspects of the seamanship involved. A Privy Council document describes a “galley” as a vessel with 18 to 24 oars, and a “ birlinn ” as one with 12 to 18 oars. Grant & Cheape mention that MacLeod of Dunvegan had a birlinn build as late as 1706, but that “in an inquisition made by the Privy Council into the number of galleys and birlinns owned by the West Coast chiefs, the number of boats is surprisingly small. Duart had two galleys and eight birlinns and his brother one galley. Argyll himself, Coll and MacLeod each had one galley, and Coll also had two birlinns . ClanRanald, MacLean of Ardgour and MacPhee (of Colonsay) each had one birlinn .” The report itself stated that (modern spelling): “The burthen of a galley and birlinn and the number of men of war which they are able to carry is estimated according to the number of their oars, counting three men to every oar.”” - extract from “Colkitto!” by K.Byrne
Some of the above mentioned craft are remembered yet. MacNeil of Barra used his to send his wife to Colonsay, where she was expected to bear a child for fosterage. Leaving Barra a few days before Christmas, the weather turned bad and a blizzard began; the crew were unable to turn back and the lady then went into labour - fortunately, there was a cow on board, a gift from MacNeil, and the crew killed and gralloched it, whereupon the mother was able to shelter in the warmth of the carcass and was delivered of a son. Next morning they arrived safely in Colonsay and the son eventually made it his home; Iain a' Chuain (“John of the Ocean”) thus founded the branch of the MacNeil of Barra family which still thrives in Colonsay today.
Argyll's galley was called the “Dubh-luideanach” and he used it as a platform to view the battle of Inverlochy, where his forces were destroyed by Alasdair MacCholla, son of Colkitto of Colonsay. Characteristically, Argyll also used the craft to flee the scene, as he had earlier used her to flee in ignominy when Alasdair sacked Inveraray.
MacPhee's birlinn came to prominence when he attempted to flee from Orsay in Islay in 1615, in the company of Sir James MacDonald, but unfortunately missed the boat. “The rest of (Sir James') companions were forced to take the hills in the night. McFie's boat was taken. Which is in service as a ship's boat to his Majesty's ships”.... from a report by Argyll to the Privy Council.
Colla Ciotach MacDonald of Colonsay was never short of a boat, although the authorities found them hard to keep track of. Famously, he was not beyond helping himself to any boat he fancied and in March 1615 he seized a boat and her crew before embarking on a lengthy tour of the isles; a crewman, Robert Williamson, kept a journal of the trip and submitted it to the authorities when he escaped, on 12 May. Thus we can trace a journey from Rathlin, through Texa, Islay, Iona, Mull, Canna, Uist, St. Kilda, Stac Boreray, Iona, Little Colonsay, then back to Rathlin - the sort of voyage that one would be proud to submit to the Journal of the Clyde Cruising Association even today.
Perhaps it is fitting to finish where we began, with yet another tribute to that Hebridean hero, this time from the pen of the Islay bard, Duncan Johnston:
Ho ri ho ri a, boireann a boireann o
O chi mi do bhat' air Maol gabhaidh na h-Odh'
A Cholla, mo Ghradh, rinneadh tair air do choir,
Thigeadh dhuit-sa bhi dan, ‘s iomadh namh th'air do thoir!
Ho ree, ho ree ah, horan ah horan oh,
I see thy lone barque on the wild Mull of Oa,
O Colla, mo ghra, sacred theme of my woe
Be ye daring and brave, for fierce is thy foe!
Colla Ciotach's harbour at Balerominmore in Colonsay was renamed after his death, and is now known as Port a' Chrocaire, “The Port of the Hangman's Victim”. In the words of Prof. MacKinnon, first Chair of Celtic Studies at Edinburgh and himself a native of Colonsay:
Chaill e a bheatha a chionn gun do chuir e
earbsa an onoir Leslie is Mhic Cailean
He lost his life because he trusted
to the honour of Leslie and Argyll
The above notes by Kevin Byrne, Colonsay