Colonsay House Gardens

Elysium off the West of Scotland

Words & Pictures: James Alexander-Sinclair

Two and a half hours west of Oban lies a small but perfectly formed island called Colonsay.  That may well sound like a direction on a treasure map “get ye twelve leagues sou-sou-west, take 127 paces due north then dig,” – and, to a certain extent, that is exactly what it is for if you are lucky enough to make that journey then it will be a complete delight.  You might, this being the Western Isles, get wet, but disappointed? I think not.

The main house on the island is Colonsay House which is also in possession of a very handsome, if somewhat overgrown, garden.  Nothing on Colonsay is completely perfect and that is the source of much of its charm.  The garden owes its existence to some far sighted gardeners who planted a thick belt of trees which shelter the place from the fierce Atlantic winds that whip through at about 60mph.

Originally home to the MacNeills, who built the house in 1701, the island was bought in 1904 by the redoubtable Donald Smith who had spent most of his life building the Canadian Pacific Railway and running the government of Canada.  He made an intricate and formal Edwardian garden but, as is the way with such things, it was designed to be very high maintenance and give employment to a number of gardeners.  Alas, that sort of gardening is unsuited to the 21st Century and so nature has laid claim to much of the formality.

The woodland garden covers some 20 acres and one of the great thrills is to wander round amongst fuchsia and fern and suddenly come across a stately magnolia or towering tree fern: like stumbling across a long forgotten archaeological artifact.   This is not to say that the garden has stayed still.   Far from it: the current owner’s father instigated some enthusiastic planting of some very rare and exciting shrubs including some amazing species rhododendrons (considered one of the finest collections in Scotland) and a whole grove of cinnamon barked myrtles.

Informal, individual and unmissable.

Not to be missed

The Lighthouse Garden is centered around the old glass lens from the Islay lighthouse.  Bought for a couple of bottles of whisky its layers of distorting glass are an endless fascination to children.


Difficult to find much wrong once you understand that nothing is ever pristine on Colonsay.

Other gardens nearby

No other gardens but the beaches (in particular Kiloran Bay, which is a 10 minute stroll from the garden,) are sensational. Long stretches of pure white sand and crystal clear blue seas.  You could be in the Carribbean – until you plunge into the water when the bracing temperatures will bring you back to Scotland!

How to get there

Drive or Train (via Glasgow) to Oban then the Caledonian Macbrayne ferry.  In the summer there are ferries most days but best to check with the website.  There is a fine hotel (The Colonsay) and cottages to rent from the Colonsay Estate.   The private inner gardens of Colonsay House are open to the public on Wednesdays and Fridays with a café serving home baking in the afternoon.