across the strand

Hello! Would you like to join us for a special island walk? Leave dry land – and perhaps your shoes – behind and prepare to cross the Strand!

The Strand is the name given to the wide tidal area that separates Colonsay and Oronsay (or Oransay, both spellings are used). At high tide, the Strand is covered, but when the water’s low, and the time is right, the sand re-emerges and you can travel on foot between the two islands. We began our walk to Oronsay a few hours before the point of low tide, and, during our crossing, were able to pause and watch the water gradually shift away, back out to sea. During this time, Tom shot footage for a film, which gives you a good sense of how these beautiful island spaces can often feel like they are shifting and moving in and out of the water – both there, and not there.

Colonsay // Oronsay

There is a definite sense of excitement (and mild trepidation) about stepping out into a marginal, tidal space: a space that’s neither quite land nor water. . . .

. . a space that is always in the process of becoming . . . of being abandoned and reclaimed by the sea . . . a mutable, transitional, never-quite-solid space.

We certainly found our walk across the Strand peculiarly exhilarating. Local Colonsay writer, Kevin Byrne, puts the experience very well: “although it is possible to drive across the Strand, this is not recommended. The traveller on foot will experience a sense of pilgrimage and achievement which is denied the motorist, and will also enjoy a surprising diversity of stimuli from the natural environment — the wind in the hair, the sand underfoot, the small of the tangle, the cry of the seabirds.”

It was a beautiful afternoon, and in the course of our journey, we encountered several other folk, who, whether barefoot or shod, were clearly crossing the Strand with this same sense of “pilgrimage and achievement.” And Oronsay has welcomed many such pedestrian pilgrims over the centuries. . .

. . .for the island has long been regarded as a place of sanctuary. As you approach the shoreline, you reach the point where Crois an Tearmaid – a once upright cross – has now sunk beneath the tidal sands, and has been (in a sense) re-constructed in the shape of a cross of the recumbent variety, formed of large stones. These shoreline crosses once marked a boundary where fugitives, fleeing in search of protection, might consider themselves safe . . . .

. . . within the sanctuary provided by Oronsay Priory. The extraordinary remains of the priory still stand, and you can reach them by following the very obvious pilgrim path across the island. Keep your dogs on their leads here: Oronsay is farmed by the RSPB, whose careful, sustainable management of the island allows rare species like corncrakes to flourish. (More of this, I think, another time).

Oronsay is thought to be one of the most likely candidates for the mysterious and as-yet-unidentified Hinba – a Scottish island monastery, favoured by St Columba as a special place of contemplation.

John the Evangelist greets you on your arrival at Oronsay priory

The priory was founded between 1325 and 1358 by John I, Lord of the Isles, and was home to a small Augustinian community until the middle of the 16th century.

The remains of the priory are extraordinarily well-preserved. As you explore, you encounter several different phases of building and rebuilding.

. . .and can imagine the past, quiet, contemplative lives that were once spent in this wonderful place

There aren’t actually three of me in the cloisters. Tom has stitched several images together.

In the Prior’s House, some wonderful grave slabs have been preserved.

(we did not take the dogs inside, but went in separately)

The artistry and individual detail of these grave slabs is incredible.

We especially enjoyed the marvellously ornate carving of Prior Donald MacDuffie: the canopied sedilia above his head; the freaky serpent /satan being killed by his crozier, and crushed beneath his feet.

But the priory’s most famous stone artefact is this cross

Erected here towards the end of the fifteenth century, its carvings are of extraordinary beauty and delicacy

roundels of foliage and flowers weave in and out of leafy stems, mythical beasts, and interlaced knotwork.

Every inch of the stone is alive with swirling, whirling detail. This type of carving is characteristic of the work of the Iona school and it is an extraordinary aesthetic and spiritual object with which it is worth spending some considerable time!

. . . but you can’t stay too long, because here time and tide waits for no man, woman, or dog

. . and you have only a few short hours to spend in this special place before the waters rise to reclaim the sand again. . . .

. . . as the sun begins to move into the west, you must return, and retrace your steps across the Strand.

Oronsay is one of those very special places (and there are several in Scotland) where the spiritual past feels truly palpable. We visited a couple of days after the full moon: the timing (and duration) of low tide meant we could devote a full afternoon to walking across the strand, around the island, and exploring the priory – all of which are highly recommended, for pedestrian pilgrims of all kinds.

Further reading: Kevin Byrne & Andrew McMorrine, The Colonsay and Oronsay Pilgrim Trail and Kevin Byrne, Lonely Colonsay: Island at the Edge (2010). Both titles are available from the Colonsay Bookshop / House of Lochar.