This trip was the happy result of a slightly odd request of the type that could only happen when you own a plane!
My sister studied Archaeology and was doing some research into shell middens. She had discovered that there were some great examples on the island of Oronsay in the Western Isles, and asked if we could take her up there.
Never one to turn down a challenge, J agreed and we set a weekend in April when she was on Easter break and we hoped the weather might allow us to get up there!
Oronsay doesn’t have an airfield of its own, it’s an island joined to the isle of Colonsay by a small tidal causeway which is only exposed for a couple of hours each day. This was another factor in planning the date for our trip, as we needed to go at a time when this short window was due to occur at a sensible time of day – somehow we didn’t fancy paddling in the dark at 3am!
Colonsay (EGEY) airport has a small tarmac runway of 500m, which is absolutely doable in ‘YC as long as the wind is not in completely the wrong direction. The tiny airport does get commercial flights from Oban during the week (these are on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the time of writing), but like many of the island airports it is unmanned in the evenings and at weekends.
J has been up to the Scottish Isles a number of times and had previously obtained Out of Hours Permission from the Highland & Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL), which allows him to land at times when there is no commercial traffic and the airports are otherwise unmanned (HIAL explain how to do this here). Colonsay is actually operated by Argyll and Bute Council, but out of hours flights can be arranged by applying for a permit through Oban Airport.
We stopped off at Prestwick for fuel, which we’ve done before and they were friendly and efficient as ever. We always use the flying club there and they are excellent.
Landing at Colonsay was windy but J handled it well. We parked up and wandered down to the sea, which is right next to the airfield.
We’d been in touch with a local guy about hiring some bikes, as we were staying in the backpackers’ hostel some distance from the airfield, and he’d agreed to leave three bikes at the airfield for us. J enquired about how we’d unlock the bikes when we arrived, and the gentleman seemed somewhat surprised that we felt locks were necessary! In any case, he advised us that he wouldn’t be locking the bikes up at all, and that he ‘didn’t think they’d get far’ if anyone decided to take them. We found them piled up against the wall and after some squabbling and brake-testing (not much braking action to speak of…), we selected one each and set off for the hostel.
Unfortunately, my sister and I hadn’t reckoned on the fact that Colonsay is really quite hilly. Whilst J is reasonably fit, I am asthmatic and she is a smoker, so we found that on slightly tired mountain bikes we were not particularly speedy! It doesn’t help that Colonsay is one of those places where – whichever way you are heading – the wind is always blowing you backwards! It was raining quite hard and reasonably chilly, so by the time we reached the hostel we were pretty cold and exhausted.
The hostel is fine – very cheap and there is quite a bit of space. We were staying in the main house, but there are small bothies as well. As it turned out, we were the first guests of 2014 so we had it to ourselves. This turned out to be good, as the bathroom door didn’t actually close at that point so we would have found it more than slightly awkward to share with anyone else! I’m sure it will have been fixed as soon as they had more than three guests staying who weren’t related to each other. We were in a triple room at the front of the house – all clean and functional.
Thankfully, when morning came the sun had decided to come out, and it promised to be a gorgeous day. It was still windy (I’m reasonably convinced that is standard) but really clear and bright, which made the ride much more pleasant.
We headed down to the causeway and left the bikes (of course we had no locks but no one else had locked theirs either – it just doesn’t seem to be the done thing!) before walking across the exposed causeway and over to Oronsay.
My sister was pleased with the shell middens and gathered the necessary info whilst J and I enjoyed the view. To be honest we had absolutely no idea what she was looking for, but she seemed happy so we left her to it!
After about an hour and a half, we had reckoned on needing to head back due to tides, and in fact we couldn’t have gone a moment too soon. Whilst in theory we were still more than an hour outside the safe time to cross, there were several inches of water already and it was rising quickly – we all had wet feet by the time we got to the other side. J had opted to save space and weight and not bringing his ankle-high walking boots as he isn’t able to fly in them, a decision which he came to regret as his feet got soaked!
We rode back to the hostel for a change of socks and some lunch, before setting out to explore the island on foot. Gorgeous views and light in the evening as you’ll see below!
The wind and rain were back in the morning, so our ride to the airport was unpleasant – I kept rounding the corners and expecting brief respite from the constant headwind, but more often than not, coming out from the shelter of the hill actually made it worse! I resolved to get fitter and cursed J every time he told us there would be ‘no more hills after this one’ (he was lying…).
We took off and were pretty quickly in the cloud so it wasn’t the most interesting flight back. We stopped for fuel in Blackpool and met up for lunch with our Dad, who lives nearby. After a small issue getting ‘YC restarted in Blackpool (she doesn’t like hot starts!), we were on our way again, and back to Biggin in just over 1hr 45mins.
- ICAO code: EGPK
- Elevation AMSL: 65ft
- Runway direction & length: 12/30 (2,986m) and 03/21 (1,905)
- Runway surface: Tarmac
- Landing fee (at time of visiting): £20 (for MTOW 1,150kg)
- Facilities: Prestwick Flying Club has a briefing room, vending machine, tea & coffee and toilets.
- Transport links: The airport has its own train station.
- ICAO code: EGEY
- Elevation AMSL: 44ft
- Runway direction & length: 11/29 (501m)
- Runway surface: Tarmac
- Landing fee (at time of visiting): £8
- Facilities: Terminal building is open at specific times around commercial flights and has toilets and a waiting area, but this is locked outside those hours.
- Transport links: There is no public transport on Colonsay. We hired bikes from Archie McConnell.
- ICAO code: EGNH
- Elevation AMSL: 34ft
- Runway direction & length: 10/28 (1,869m) and 13/31 (1,004m)
- Runway surface: Tarmac
- Landing fee (at time of visiting): £26
- Facilities: Briefing room, tea & coffee & toilets in the operations area. Main terminal building has a cafe and shops, and there is a pub within walking distance of the terminal where we had lunch.