This includes guidance for tackling the task in four easy stages!
MacPhee-Bagging, and MacPhee-Bagging Lite ( work in progress, May 3rd 2021, next section next week! )
"The MacPhees" is the generic name for the 22 hills in Colonsay and Oronsay that are higher than 300 feet; "MacPhee-Bagging" is the process of finding and climbing them, so as to tick them off your list. There is an obvious association with Munro-Bagging, but without the elevation.
The classic approach to MacPhee-Bagging is to start from some point (any point) below the High-water mark, and then to make a complete circuit of them all (in the order of your choice), in one connected walk, finishing at some point (any point) below the High-water mark. In summer, it is usual to omit Beinn Orasa so as to avoid disturbance to ground-nesting birds; this helps a lot, as it avoids tidal complications on the Strand. However, even a circuit of the Colonsay hills will involve a walk of over twenty miles and the equivalent of climbing Ben Nevis, so it can be daunting. On average, a normal walker who starts at 09.00hrs will finish at about 18.30hrs if in company, or 16.30 if alone and not stopping for any break.
Please be aware of rugged terrain, the dangers of livestock and that large sections of the route have no mobile phone coverage. If alone, make sure that somebody knows of your intentions and, at the very least, please leave a note clearly displayed in your car -where you have gone, and the time by which you should return.
The summits can be taken in any order, but are given here in an order that has been found to be convenient. The local name is followed by an approximate height and a GPS reference; the Ordnance Survey spelling of the name is given when if it appears in Explorer Sheet 354 , and the English translation is from John de Vere Loder, Colonsay and Oronsay in the Isles of Argyll (1935), or as accepted locally.
Section 1: The Seven Hills.
This is a splendid walk that will give you astounding views with only three noticeable ascents, the first, second and fifth. Start at An Crosan ( The Small Cross ), where you can easily park, at the start of the track to Balnahard. This section is a circular walk, so you finish where you started. Allow anything from 2.5 to 4.5 hours and, if alone, do make somebody knows of your plans and leave a note displayed in your car.
Walk along the beach if you wish, otherwise just follow the track - you will easily identify the first two hills, straight ahead of you. The cairn on Carn an Eoin has the profile of a Sphinx, due to three stone buttresses that provide wind breaks. The track to Balnahard is concreted on the steep ascent of the Bealach ( pass or defile ), and at the very point that it stops climbing, turn off to your right and select a simple zigzag route to climb your first MacPhie, A' Bheinn Bheag ( The Little Peak ). You will easily find the cairn, but go a little further and you will find that you have entered an important but unappreciated hill-fort. It is fairly easy to trace its outline, but the well-preserved hut circles in its sheltered interior are of especial interest. They are said to have been sheilings, but of course their original date is unknown. A gatehouse can be identified at the northwest edge; make your way onwards from the south-eastern side, so as to approach Carnan Eoin. As you descend the steep grassy slope, you should easily identify the very substantial but eroded Bronze Age cairn below you and to your right, ten metres in diameter.
On reaching the foot of the slope, you should be able to identify a narrow zigzag path immediately opposite, which will give you a good start on the ascent of Carn an Eoin. You then join a clear, well-defined path, with convenient resting places and great views of Kiloran Bay. The summit cairn was restored in 2020 by the Colonsay & Oronsay Heritage Trust, and there is also a (redundant) "trig point". Ordnance Survey triangulation stations such as this were erected across Great Britain in a project commenced in 1935; when the network was completed, it was possible from any station to see at least two more. There are others on Beinn Orasa and Beinn nan Gudairean.
Leaving the trig point on your right, follow a rough path straight ahead and downwards. After crossing a narrow glen, you pass over a tiny rise and will notice a small group of shieling huts, which you pass at NR410985. With luck, you will pick up the rather convenient sheeptrack, that winds nicely along almost level ground towards A' Bheinn Bhreach. There are good views, and one or two ruins (including a substantial circular stone setting, possibly an eroded cairn). When you are close to A' Bheinn Bhreach, please try to keep your party close together and do not delay at the cairn. This is a sensitive site for nesting raptors - there is nothing to be seen due to the overhang of the cliff, but your very presence may cause disturbance and should be as brief as possible. Turn away from the cairn and descend the fairly easy slope towards the south, bearing slightly to your left to cross a heather clad rocky hillock. You will probably see a sheep track straight ahead of you and leading up the flank of your next target, A' Mhaol Bhuidhe. This exact hill is not named on the Ordnance Survey map, but the spot-height "102" is a help; there are a few summits in the vicinity of much the same height. This one is good because it saves you climbing a difficult fence and it does give some good views, including one of Dùn Mòr (an important unrecorded site, the very obvious green hillock about 800 metres to the northeast).
Having "bagged" four hills, the route remains undemanding for another kilometre or so. If you look southwards along the coast, you should have no difficulty in identifying the looming bulk of Cnoc Mòr Charraig nan Darrach. Approach it by continuing to the south for about 200 metres until you reach the march wall between Balnahard and Kiloran; there is a gate in the wall, but it is rather hidden by a well-placed bluff, directly between you and the gate. Once you find the gate, look again to identify Cnoc Mòr Charraig nan Darrach, but instead of heading directly towards it, go a little to your right, towards a small group of eight sycamores in the lee of Cnoc Inebri (if you are hawk-eyed, this tiny Victorian plantation is actually marked on the map by the symbol of a deciduous tree). You will notice that you are on a plateau and, as soon as you have crossed the hump of an old boundary, you will have avoided soft ground and can bear slightly to the left, towards your objective and following a sheep path across level grass.
When the ground falls away, you will notice a small ruin below you, Fang nan Each ( Horse Fank ). Keeping the ruin on your left, head towards Cnoc Mòr Charraig nan Darrach and try to identify the lighter colour of a steepish slope, just to the left of a section of dark, heather-clad cliff. The sloping ascent to the summit from Leanan nan Iasgairean ( Fishermen's Meadow, i.e. Heron Marsh ) is not too bad, and there are two level patches for respite. At the summit you will again enjoy great views, including the full length of Loch Fada and a bird's eye view of the fish farm, established in 2015. The farm employs twelve people and has proved to be very successful despite its exposed location.
Looking south you should easily identify Beinn nam Fitheach, which is at the far end of a dampish glen, beyond Lochan Clach ( Little Stony Loch ). Your best approach is to walk 100 metres inland along the ridge of Cnoc Mòr Charraig nan Darrach, so as to descend comfortably to a grassy patch and then make your way towards your objective, aiming to pass to the right (west) of Lochan Clach. There is a slightly damp patch as you are passing west of Corr Dhùnan, but one good stride should get you across. Then follow the very convenient passage along the west side of the glen, noticing the very distinctive anvil profile of the cliff-face at Beinn nam Fitheach. When you are barely 300 metres from that bluff, look to your left to identify the very obvious (only) passage to the higher ground. There is (probably) a prominent black plastic tub which is a good guide, and when you reach it you will see that there is a ruined wall giving access to an inviting natural passageway. There are interesting lichen as you approach the wall, and about 30 metres beyond it you will reach the first native trees on the walk, Downy Birch ( Betula pubescens ), the uppermost representatives of A' Choille Mhòr ( The Great Wood ). This stretch of ancient Atlantic Rainforest runs from Beinn nam Fitheach right down to the shore and is protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Turn right through this slight coppice and after climbing a slope turn left to stand on the aptly-named summit; it would be a sad day if you could not see or hear the Ravens that delight in the locality. Looking down from the summit you look across A' Choille Mhor, also Eilean Olmsa ( Holm Island ) and its anchorage, to enjoy excellent views of the Paps of Jura and along the Sound of Islay.
Turn northwards, towards Carn an Eoin, and identify the final peak on this section, the rounded summit of Dùn Dubh. Go back the way you came, passing (carefully) across the ruined wall and turn back along the path, leaving that black tub behind you. After about 100 paces a wide hollow opens out to your left; cross it diagonally, heading towards the north (and passing a distinctive green habitation site, a hillock about 50 metres to your right). As you breast the ridge, your final summit will lie just ahead of you, with an easy access slope.
You will now need to get back to the starting point, so head southwest along the top of Dùn Dubh, for an easy descent. At the foot turn right and then bear left again, losing height as you head in the general direction of Kiloran Bay. Descending a hummocky bank, you will cross a ruined wall and may be lucky enough to pick up the sheep track that skirts the hillside, still leading towards Kiloran Bay. Ideally, there will be fairly open, tussocky ground below you to your right and you will shortly approach a small, warm, grassy sloping meadow, Garradh nan Coineanan ( Rabbit Field ). If so, you then pass through a narrow and distinctive pass in the rocks and will be rewarded by the sight of An Crosan once again. Even if you have gone astray in this section, there should be no great problem in identifying An Crosan and in getting there by one or other of the gates provided.
All told, the distance in this first section is probably about 5 miles and a smart-phone will log about 14,000 steps for the circuit. Hopefully you will have enjoyed this section by the time that Section Two is described and uploaded, next week.