Alastair M. Scouller, Isle of Colonsay
A wedding held on Colonsay this summer was cause for celebration, not only because the young couple were expressing their commitment to one another, but because they had decided to make their home on the island. The Registrar who married them has herself recently moved to the island with her partner. Another young couple, who were married on the island a few years ago, have just taken over the running of the Colonsay Hotel.
There are currently around 10-12 people in their 20s and 30s, most with family links to the island, trying to make a go of living on Colonsay. Some will stay only a few years, perhaps long enough for their children to attend the tiny primary school; others may put down roots. A disincentive for some families is that secondary-age children have to go to school on the mainland, returning home by plane at weekends.
The population of Colonsay has shown modest increases at the last two Censuses: 106 in 1991; 113 in 2001; 132 in 2011. Although the upward trend will probably not continue in 2021, it appears that the island can comfortably sustain a population of 120-130. But it is important to look behind the figures, at what is actually happening in the Colonsay community.
Colonsay has experienced enormous economic, demographic and cultural transformation in the last 40 years. In the 1970s, most people were involved in agriculture, either crofting or small-scale farming, and Gaelic was the language of day-to-day conversation. In 2019, the island is largely dependent on tourism, particularly self-catering accommodation, and only a handful of people are still fluent in Gaelic.
But Colonsay is thriving in its own way, even though its success remains precarious.
Local businesses include a café, two craft shops/galleries, a bookshop, a brewery, and a bike hire business, in addition to the shop, post office and the all-important accommodation providers. Many islands, these days, have a gin distillery – Colonsay has two! The one independent farm on the island sells its own meat, as well as a range of wool products. A fish farm off the east coast provides a number of jobs. The local development company decided, some years ago, to create new crofts, in the hope of attracting younger families.
Colonsay has also become known as a ‘festival island’, with events including the Ceòl Cholasa music festival, a book festival, the Spring Festival (focussing on craft activities and guided walks) and the Autumn Festival of Food and Drink. It all helps to extend the ‘season’ of economic activity, and keeps the place buzzing with creativity – and hope for the future.