At daybreak on a May morning last year, groups of people gathered on the sites of six ancient hill forts on the island of Colonsay to light flaming torches. The event marked the Celtic festival of Beltane, a pagan celebration to welcome spring, but it also launched Colonsay’s first Festival of Spring, three weeks of workshops, lectures, guided walks and events designed to showcase to the island’s culture.
From a viewing platform on Signal Hill, a group of the festival’s first visitors, bleary-eyed from rising at 4am, took in the magical sight as plumes of vivid firelight appeared on the hilltops across the remote Hebridean island.
The ritual, and the festival it preceded, were such a success that the 112 residents of Colonsay are now gearing up for a repeat performance. As well as expressing their enthusiasm for this isolated spot, just west of Jura and north of Islay, the event is intended to attract visitors – something that residents realise is essential to ensure the island’s sustainability.
Kevin Byrne is one of many islanders taking part in the festival. He runs the island’s bookshop, a tiny bothy at Port Mor jam-packed with diverse publications, including those of its own imprint, House of Lochar. Byrne’s passion is archaeology, and at this year’s festival he will lead a series of walks focusing on Colonsay’s prehistoric remains. Last year, he led me and other visitors up the hillside east of the Strand (a wide beach in the south of the island), revealing that the grassy knolls we passed were actually the remains of ancient circles of huts and agricultural enclosures.
Down on the shoreline, I took part in a foraging expedition under the guidance of the food writer Hugo Arnold, who has a stake in the island’s hotel, The Colonsay. After collecting mussels and seaweed. we walked in the woodland surrounding Colonsay House to harvest further ingredients: nettles for soup, garlic to make pesto, sorrel and tiny pink claytonia flowers for a salad.
As well as having diverse plant life and a huge variety of archaeological remains, Colonsay is particularly rich in bird life. So much so that the RSPB has a permanent representative on the island, Mike Peacock. This year he will guide a series of walks, armed with a super-powered telescope to allow visitors to look closely at the island’s resident species.
Other events include golf tournaments at Machrins Bay and whisky-tasting with makers from Islay’s Bruichladdich Distillery. Artist Julian Meredith (who has made a 525ft sculpture of a whale on Colonsay, laid out in a field and made from stones gleaned from the nearby beach at Balnahard) will run wood-block printing workshops.
After wildflower walks, birdwatching and archeology, I retired to The Colonsay hotel to sip red wine by the fire. I didn’t have time to tour the island brewery, or take part in a wool dying workshop or a ceilidh. Those will have to wait until this year.