Islay resident Katie Featherstone takes readers on a long and rugged walk to discover both the wild nature and the harsh human history of the Oa peninsula.
A curiously round protrusion, the Oa forms the most southerly part of Islay. Far from the gentle hills and long sandy beaches for which the rest of the island is known, this peninsula towers above the sea with eroding, rocky cliffs, dramatic sea stacks, and hidden coves. With half the landmass run by the RSPB as a nature reserve, it’s known for its birdlife, particularly choughs, hen harriers, and nesting golden eagles.
Only 7 miles from my parents’ house, I’d been visiting the Oa for decades – dipping in and out as we discovered more possibilities for walking small sections or visiting a new [to us] stretch of coastline – still, there were huge areas I’d never seen. Something about this strangely separate lump of Islay had always allured me, and over a long, wet winter, I began to hatch a plan to walk around the coast in one day. The writer Peter Edwards, an expert on this walk, assured me that the mission was possible, but advised that I make sure any companions were aware of the undertaking: it was just over 15 miles, not an unreasonably long day walk, but many of them were unpathed and the continuous small, but rough ascents and descents were tiring. With that in mind, I decided to go alone – limiting a possible failure to my own inconvenience. I waited impatiently until the end of March; the days stretched just long enough for a chance of success.
Earlier in the morning than I’ve usually had my coffee, but still later than I would have liked, I got a lift into Port Ellen with my postman partner, Dan. The Oa was part of his round, and he assured me that there were now less than 50 people living on the whole peninsula – a number which The Museum of Islay Life staff explained has reduced from around 1,000 at its peak in the 19th century. The ruins of old settlements, homes before the potato famine and Clearances, were scattered across the landscape, most of which could only be accessed on foot.
Carraig Fhada, a peculiar, square-based lighthouse, marked the start of my hike. On this morning, its straight, white walls and distinctive corners were shrouded in coastal fog; the haze spilled onto the shore, giving everything a still, silent quality, which re-enforced my feeling that, while I wasn’t far from home, this was the start of a small adventure.
Walking past the few houses lucky enough to see some variation of this view every morning, I crossed the first headland to Singing Sands, a popular beach for both locals and visitors, but deserted on this occasion by everyone apart from the resident long-horned goats. Jagged black rocks penetrated a layer of untouched, yellow sand, their harsh lines obscured by swirling mist, and the ghostly outline of a Calmac ferry was approaching Port Ellen in the distance. Seeing a familiar place with new eyes, I forgot myself on this first section of coastline, lingering for 40 minutes on a stretch which should have taken 15. When I eventually checked my watch, a stab of urgency reminded me I had many miles to cover; my mind’s wanderings needed to be more succinct, and not interrupt the pace of my feet.
Having clambered around the rocky shore for about half a mile, watching the scenery on my right rise from machair and low sand-dunes, to steep grassy slopes and slabs of rock, I reached an inevitable point where it was no longer possible to walk at sea-level. I needed to climb up and follow the cliff tops as they rose ever higher but, of course, I had absent-mindedly missed the best opportunity, and ended up scrabbling on my hands and knees on two separate attempts – I was already relieved not to have dragged anyone else along for the misadventure.
The clifftop walk started easily enough, with a rough path to follow as far as Port an Eas; the waterfall in this beach’s name is a slender tumble of water, falling down the cliffs to rejoin itself below as a small stream, which divides a semi-circle of yellow ochre sand into two halves. Slightly inland, were the remains of Tornamoine, part of a ruined farmstead that would once have been associated with the nearby cleared settlement at Lurabus. Wheatears flitted around the lichen-covered drystone walls, the roofless buildings nestled in a small valley for shelter. In 1839, the settlement of Lurabus was reported to house around 120 people, an unthinkably large population for the number of surviving ruins – historian, Steven Mithen suggests this would have meant 10 people living in each house. We have no idea how many of these inhabitants survived the potato famine in 1845. Whether by force or economic necessity, the population dwindled in the following decades, and the remaining residents were finally removed in 1859/60, to make way for sheep.
Beyond Port an Eas, I entered unknown [to me] territory. A quick glance at the map suggested I had about 5 miles left to reach the American Monument. That was supposed to be my lunch stop, and near the last sensible escape route, if it looked like I wasn’t going to complete the walk before dark. Timings were looking tight. I set off with renewed determination, stomping along ever-dwindling goat paths around the clifftops, as the late-morning sun beat down on my head. Surely it was hot for March, but then we’d hardly had a frost all winter.
A few miles southwest, at Stremnishmore, which was once a small township, a single house of a later date stood derelict, surrounded by grazing sheep. I didn’t know its story and wondered, now that Islay was facing a housing crisis, whether the decent track leading towards it from the road, meant that it could ever be renovated and liveable once more.
South of Stremnishmore, I was lured to slow my marching speed by the temptation of visiting Islay’s most southerly point. I clambered down to the slabs and boulders to the shoreline of Rubha nan Leacan. With Northern Ireland on the horizon, it took me a moment to realise that this wasn’t just the furthest south of Islay, but in fact the whole Hebrides – the North Channel stretched in front of me, and the Atlantic to the west. The joy I felt from finding myself at the edge of my own world, was quickly replaced by a familiar existential anxiety as I explored the area’s hidden gullies and coves – exposed to the full force of our winter storms, this remote spot had collected mountains of plastic waste. Colourful fish boxes, lengths of rope, and enough round buoys to string a giant’s necklace, were joined by flotillas of empty plastic bottles, and odd wellie boots. I worried for the seabirds that would nest on these cliffs, and our large marine mammals – seals, dolphins and porpoises – that we were always so excited to see. If humans could cause such damage somewhere they didn’t even visit, what hope did we have elsewhere? I picked up a few token scraps, some plastic hooks we use to hang wet outdoor kit at home, and forced the thought from my mind with a promise of later beach cleans.
From here, the map’s tight contours suggested that the only way was back up and, reminding myself of the ticking clock, I hiked up towards Beinn Mhòr, one of many ‘big hill’s in Scotland. For the first time now, I could see a tiny figure in the distance; this turned out to be David Dinsley, an RSPB warden for the Oa. Raising his voice over the wind, which had begun to pick up in our lofty meeting place, he told me they were doing a cliff survey, the first bird survey of the spring, and mainly looking for raptors and corvids, especially choughs showing signs of breeding.
Continuing through lumpy heather, my first glimpse of the enormous American Monument, beyond half-way point, was reassuring, despite its sombre reminder: in 1918, during World War I, 597 lives were lost during two disastrous shipwrecks off the coast. On the 5th February that year, the SS Tuscania, an old luxury liner being used as a troopship, was torpedoed by a German submarine. While the Royal Navy managed to save most of the 2,397 crew and American military personnel, many escaped in lifeboats only to be smashed against the cliffs. Ileachs (Islay residents) saved as many as they could, and did their best to gather and identify the bodies, sewing an American flag from a picture in an encyclopaedia to commemorate the 166 dead. Half a year later, on the 6th October, disaster stuck again when the HMS Otranto collided with the HMS Kashmir in a storm; another monumental rescue was attempted, saving hundreds of American soldiers, but 431 more lives were lost.
I reached the monument just 15 minutes after my self-imposed cut-off time, and made the decision to press on, completing the last section in the dark if it came to that. Some of this coast was familiar ground: Lower Killeyan, with its scattering of inhabited houses, perched above a sweeping bay with sea stacks rising from the waves like monsters. This was my last potential escape route, but the remaining 6 miles seemed like the home stretch and I charged on with confidence, following scraps of paths made by goats, which occasionally reminded me that I wasn’t one of them, as they skirted around the edge of cliffs, and under low-hanging crags, with a dizzying death drop below. On the shoreline, 100 meters down, dead kelp piled high like the tusks of an elephants’ graveyard.
By the time I reached Soldier’s Rock, at the Oa’s furthest northwest point, the sun was low in the sky, basking the cliffs and towering, cuboid sea stack in a warm orange glow. Tired, I lay down on the cliff’s edge for a better view, as the shags resting on rocks below stretched their necks in consideration. Guillemots and fulmars would soon be nesting here, the yearly life-cycle starting once again. Following the river to my right would have led through the ruined settlements of Tockmal, Grasdale and Frachdale, three neighbouring communities along Sruthan Poll nan Gamhna. With a Neolithic chambered cairn, standing stones, and cup marks, these river banks show some form of habitation from prehistoric times up until the Clearances in the 1860s, but are now left to roaming feral goats.
At dusk, as I brushed through the long grass and clambered around the twisted branches of a small patch of ancient woodland, the final miles stretched longer than I remembered. By the time I reached the edge of Kintra Farm, Dan was waiting for me, having been delivering post the entire time I’d been walking. I hurried along the muddy tracks, trying not to disturb the cows with their calves. In my tiredness, 500m from the car, I failed to negotiate a familiar cow pat swamp, underestimating its depth, and falling, boots stuck, onto my hands and knees – my pride at the completed mission, brought down to earth in humbling sludge.
A couple of locals were leaning on their bonnets in the small car park. Looking enquiringly, but without comment, at my dishevelled appearance, one called over, ‘Did you see the eagle? It was right over your head.’ I hadn’t noticed, and reflected that, while I was glad to have done it, the Oa should probably be enjoyed in less of a rush.