Monday, 1 June 2015

Oronsay: the Old Sanctuary

Early on a grey morning we left our house on Colonsay and walked down to the Strand. Our schedule was dictated by the tides, for Oronsay is a tidal island, the crossing only possible an hour or two either side of low tide.

Robert MacFarlane would make this crossing barefoot, all the better to connect with the landscape. Instead I got sand on my walking boots, watching hermit crabs in the pools that remain even at lowest tide.

Beinn Eibhne on Colonsay across The Strand:

Once on Oronsay, the sun burst out from behind Jura. The whole of Oronsay is surrounded by beautiful white shell sand. We beachcombed and watched the seabirds.

This area is rich in 'shell mounds' - nondescript bumps in the landscape containing ancient rubbish tips. Archaeologists have learned a lot about Scotland's earliest people from these. Imagine coming ashore here ten thousand years ago, foraging for shellfish, building a shelter, lighting a fire, and telling stories.

Breakfast at Seal Cottage:

However the main attraction of Oronsay is not prehistory but Oronsay Priory. Legend has it this was founded by St Columba. Exiled from home, his first landfall was Oronsay. But he could still see Ireland from Beinn Oronsay, so left to travel further on to Iona.

Oronsay Priory:

Nothing so old remains though. The priory, crosses and graveslabs are no older than the 14th century, including this magnificent late example.

The Oronsay Cross:

The situation is delightful, in well-maintained grounds next door to Oronsay Farm - the island's only inhabited building - with the steep, suntrap flank of Beinn Oronsay to the north and open views to machair and the Paps of Jura south.

The small cross, Oronsay:

With no entry fee, literature or other information, two discoveries are made when exploring the priory - the first delightful, the second macabre. In a restored stone barn stand the collection of recovered medieval graveslabs, as fine as any on the west coast.


The second discovery is quite unexpected - human bones. The priory has a number of alcoves containing human remains. Some are empty - but not all. The remoteness of Oronsay keeps them undisturbed. Who were these people? And for how many centuries have these bones been out in the open?

Empty ossuary alcove:

I was very keen to climb Beinn Oronsay, but time and tide were against us. This is not a place to rush, and the best plan is to go prepared to spend the whole day or night on the island. A couple of hours either side of the tide is not enough.

Halfway across the Strand, an unusual feature - a crude, recumbent cross made from broken stones. This is the Sanctuary Cross, marking the boundary between Colonsay and Oronsay. Oronsay was considered a particularly sacred site in medieval times, and the protection of God shielded any lawbreaker who could outrun his pursuers and pass this boundary. How many desperate men, I wonder, have sought sanctuary in this way over the years?

Looking back to Beinn Oronsay from Colonsay:


blueskyscotland said...

Looks an interesting island. The books of Robert Macfarlane were brought to my attention by a friend a few years ago and I took note of them.

Douglas Wilcox said...

Hi Robert great blog about a stunning place. :o)

My photo of the old Oronsay Cross appeared in the first episode of the BBC documentary, The Great British Story. Apparently they set out to film it but could not cross the sands due to a week of storms and neap tides.