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Oronsay: The Well-Preserved Priory

by Elizabeth Buie (copyright notice)



Fourteenth-century Oronsay Priory is among the best preserved ancient monuments in Clan Donald territory. Historians generally ascribe its condition to two causes: it escaped the Reformation, and local residents have taken care of it for centuries.

I planned my visit to Oronsay for a Saturday midday, after arriving on Colonsay on Friday night via the two-and-a-half-hour ferry trip southwest from Oban, on the west coast of the Scottish mainland. Normally separated by a strait, these sister islands cling together for three hours at low tide, when the receding water reveals a mile-wide strand. Most visitors to Oronsay cross the strand on foot; some ride with the Royal Mail in its Land Rover. I was going to walk.

(See external link to info on the Isle of Colonsay. And here's more on Colonsay.)

Crossing from Colonsay

The day of my foot-crossing dawned bright and clear, a welcome change from the previous day's foggy drizzle. A good day, I thought, for a trek across firm, wet sand. After donning my lightweight hiking boots, I drove the Peugeot to the south end of the Colonsay road to await the uncovering of the strand. A couple soon joined me, the first Americans I had met in over a week. Charlotte and Tom, of Atlanta, had already made the trek to Oronsay several times; this time they planned to make rubbings of some of the famous carved gravestones. The three of us chatted as we scanned the shallow water for signs of bare sand.

Photo of 
         strand at low tideDFinally, at two hours before low tide, we gave up and waded into the four-inch-deep water. At first we tiptoed through the shallowest areas, hoping to maintain some semblance of dry feet until the tide had had time to uncover the strand. Soon, though, we realized the futility of our efforts; soaked feet were inevitable. We splashed ahead.

Halfway across, we met a Land Rover spraying its way along the "road," the path of shallowest water. Its occupants, said Charlotte, were workers on the Oronsay building project. The island had recently been purchased by a New England couple, and the wife was here to supervise the caretaking of the Priory and the restoration of the farm buildings. We envied those fellows their dry feet.

Water lapped at our ankles all the way to Oronsay. Once ashore, however, we found the second mile of our hike blessed with warm sunshine, a dry road, and a splendid view of the eight-miles-distant Paps of Jura. (See also my article on Jura.) Feeling almost comfortable, we traded stories of our attempts at photographing those triple peaks. By the end of our walk, our feet had stopped squishing. I arrived at the Priory with a healthy respect for anyone whose life must regularly include such crossings.

It was then that I developed my own theory about the preservation of the Priory. Vandals just don't go to Oronsay, I realized. It takes too dadblamed much effort to get there.

History and present condition

Photo of abbey 
         on hillsideDThe present buildings of the Oronsay Priory date from the mid-1300s, when the abbey was rebuilt by "Good John" MacDonald, Lord of the Isles. The date of the Priory's original founding is not certain, but some speculate that St. Columba himself began the work before moving on to Iona in 563. Legend says that he did land on Oronsay but left because he could still see Ireland, from which he had been banished. He named the island, it is said, for St. Oran.

The Oronsay Priory is amazingly whole. It somehow missed the destructive attention of John Knox's followers, so the weather alone wrought its ruin. In addition, for some two hundred years the MacNeills of Oronsay cared for it, replacing individual stones as they tumbled from the walls.

Photo of Celtic cross
         and abbey ruinsDWell-preserved as it is, however, the Priory is still a ruin. Long-missing roofs let sunbeams and seagulls play among the passages. Tiny white flowers grow in clumps on the walls, as if planted there in window boxes. Daisies carpet the rooms. Gulls nest atop walls, calling to each other and screeching at people who come too close. A few of the inside walls are crumbled; high openings in others show where an upper story once stretched.

The outside walls tell a different story: they stand entire. The stones fit together well. The doorways — although low enough to require stooping — look as if they will hold up awhile yet. These buildings won't come crashing down on some unsuspecting visitor. And a carved Celtic cross still smiles on the scene from a tiny hill to the north.

Photo of passagewayOnly one of the Priory's buildings supports a roof. This recent addition protects a collection of carved gravestones considered second only to Iona's. It was these stones that my companions had come to rub and I to photograph.D

Unfortunately, however, these goals eluded our grasp. The building's roof had indeed protected the stones from the weather, but the still-open windows provided shelter for birds as well. The new owner, in beginning her caretaking, had ordered the gravestones washed of many years' worth of bird droppings. We found them soapy, wet, and shiny — poor subjects for either rubbing or photographing.

By this time, several others had joined us at the Priory. We sat on a low wall and pulled out our bag lunches, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere so common to Scotland's ancient monuments. Charlotte and Tom decided to come back the next day to make their rubbings; I regretfully chose not to return because I had only two days left for seeing Colonsay. We basked in the sunshine until we could no longer ignore the time and the inevitably rising tide.

The return to Colonsay

Our second trek across the "strand" was no drier than the first. This time, however — resigned to our fate from the start — we waded through the water with no complaints. Back on Colonsay, I returned immediately to my B&B room. I rinsed the salt water from my boots and left them to dry, hoping the leather hadn't been damaged too badly — and glad I'd brought other shoes.

My boots are okay. The difficulty I had in getting to Oronsay is now only a memory, but the photos I brought back will always remind me of its beauty and serenity. My visit was well worth the effort.

I just hope the vandals don't find out.

For more pictures of Scotland,
see Æsthetic Images Photography.

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(This article was published in the May 1988 issue of By Sea By Land, the newsletter of Clan Donald USA. Copyright © 1988, 1997, 1998, Elizabeth Buie. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to print this page or link to it, as long as such use is personal or educational and is not for commercial gain or profit. This article may not be republished or redistributed without permission.
Contact me for more information or to ask about usage permission.

Other articles I've written on travel to Scotland

Last updated 30 April 2006, to redo the visual design