‘Neolithic chic’ – Coillabus on Islay

Holiday accommodation comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes the reality turns out to be not quite as it seemed in the brochure, while on other occasions you arrive to find it’s even better than expected. Coillabus on Islay was one of those, especially when we arrived at the lodge and saw the breathtaking 180° views over the north-west of the Oa. In fact, we could even see all the way along Glen Astle to the Rinns of Islay lighthouse on the small island of Orsay!

Set into the hillside, the lodge is almost invisible from the road, with curving stone walls and a turf roof that blend into the surrounding landscape: “Traditional black house meets neolithic with a healthy dose of contemporary chic”, as one description imaginatively puts it! And that’s not far wrong. Even the instructions on how to get there were magical: “The road becomes narrow with twisty corners in places. Continue past…the house with hens and other livestock.  Go up round past Connachan’s Grave, a chambered cairn on your left…then up a really steep bend past a house with…more hens who might be responsible for your breakfast eggs”!  How often do you get directions like this!

An example of a traditional black house of the kind that inspired modern-day Coillabus

The Oa is home to a large RSPB reserve as well as a wealth of archaeological and historical sites. The American Monument, visible from miles around, marks the tragic loss of life when two US troop ships sank off the peninsula in 1918. And, as on so many Scottish islands, there are signs of old abandoned settlements, many from the time of the Clearances, when landlords forced tenants to leave their homes. This area once supported many more families than it does today.

However, there is continuity with the island’s past as the Coillabus lodges lie within a family-owned working hill farm and were built with local stone by local craftsmen. The modern, environmentally-friendly underfloor heating makes for a warm and comfortable stay. We were fortunate to have good weather during our visit, but the lodge is so well insulated the weather almost didn’t matter! In fact, you could say it’s a ‘weatherproof’ house where the drama of a storm raging outside would be thrilling to watch through the magnificent panoramic windows.

In the current issue of Scottish Islands Explorer I look at some of the ways architects are taking the best from the past and combining it with modern technology.  Coillabus, and properties like it, give the lie to the notion that eco-friendly living means a primitive existence! In Scotland we’re well on the way to meeting our electricity needs through renewables. Using air and ground source heat pumps, it’s great to see a growing number of buildings where the old meets the new to create something both sustainable and comfortable – and in this case very much in keeping with a glorious island setting. Coillabus is undoubtedly an example of the way to go!

Coillabus Ecoluxury Lodges

Caledonian MacBrayne Hebridean & Clyde Ferries

Isle of Islay

Scoraig: almost an island

The starting point for the 5 mile walk-in to Scoraig

The starting point for the 5 mile walk-in to Scoraig

There are one or two places on the west coast of Scotland that are not islands as such, but which are to all intents and purposes islands. Scoraig on Little Loch Broom in Wester Ross is one.  To reach Scoraig you can either go by boat (the easy way – though always weather dependent!) from Badluarach on the south shore of Little Loch Broom – or you can walk. There is no road, no vehicular access, only a dramatic 5-mile cliff-side path. This was the route we chose earlier this year.  The walk starts at the road end at Badralloch and offers spectacular views down the length of Little Loch Broom.

Looking up Little Loch Broom from the path to Scoraig

Looking up Little Loch Broom from the path to Scoraig

Until the mid 1800s the peninsula supported a number of farming townships: houses grouped together surrounded by feannagan – ridge and furrow rigs for growing crops. By the mid-19th century, however, the estate had been sold off and the new owner dramatically changed the landscape of the area by breaking up the townships and laying out crofts. These were hard, harsh times in the Highlands and Islands. New homes had to be built from scratch, infertile land worked until a living could be eked from it.  Increased rents, both in kind and in labour, demanded by landlords.

Remains of the older community are still in eveidence

Remains of the older community are still in evidence

But battle on they did, and that so many survived is a tribute to the courage and determination of the inhabitants.  Life continued, families grew and according to Scoraig’s community website, there were 61 children at the school in 1873.  However, as steamer transport declined and road and rail routes passed Scoraig by – as well as the toll of two world wars – the population began to dwindle and by the early 1960s the last of the indigenous Gaelic speaking crofters had gone.

But surprisingly Scoraig didn’t die. A new wave of settlers arrived in the 1960s and 1970s and rebuilt this unique community. Back then some of their practices were regarded as odd– but their approach to self-sufficiency, wind and solar power are now seen as the way forward for the rest of us. They were hard-working pioneers and they were ahead of their time.  Scoraig has continued to grow and thrive; that the community supports a nursery and a school for children aged 5-14 is proof of that. What was once seen as ‘alternative’ living has stood the test of time and proven its worth. And can teach us all something for the challenges we face today.

The jetty at Scoraig

The jetty at Scoraig

New housing at Scoraig

New housing at Scoraig