We recently returned from a wonderful stay on the Isle of Coll. This blog features my top things to see and do on Coll.
About the Isle of Coll
The Isle of Coll is thirteen miles long and three miles across at its widest part. Around 150 people live on the island. The main settlement is Arinagour – a small village with a general store, post office, church, hotel, bunkhouse and cafe.
The fictitious island of Struay in Mairi Hedderwick’s Katie Morag books was inspired by Coll. Coll featured in the BBC’s adaptation of the much-loved books.
Getting to the Isle of Coll
The Isle of Coll is reached via ferry from Oban. The 2 hour 40 minute crossing, operated by CalMac is incredibly scenic.
You can also fly to Coll with Hebridean Air Services Ltd.
Accommodation on the Isle of Coll
Accommodation on the island is limited, so if you’re planning a visit it’s advisable to book well in advance.
The island has a 5 star bunkhouse located in Arinagour. Rooms are currently set up as studios for private use. Coll Bunkhouse is where we stayed. We loved it. It was clean, comfortable, modern and well-equipped.
The bunkhouse offers bookable parking spaces for camper vans and motor homes too.
Arinagour also has a small, family-run hotel – The Coll Hotel.
Besides the bunkhouse and hotel, the island has some B&B accommodation, self-catering lets and designated camping spots.
Getting around the Isle of Coll
There’s no public transport on the island. If you want to explore it thoroughly you’ll need a car, or bike.
Bikes can be hired from the Post Office in Arinagour.
We drove, as we wanted to get around quickly and maximise our time on the island.
The roads on Coll are single-track with passing places and there are no road signs. Studying a map of the island to get a feel for the road layout will pay dividends.
The islanders obviously have a sense of humour. Drive down this track at 70mph and you’ll end up with concussion.
Extra points if you can spot geese and a Dutchman’s Cap.
My Isle of Coll top things to see and do
We stayed on Coll for two nights and had two full days to explore. We managed to see and do loads, without having to rush around like mad things.
Coll is best known for its beautiful beaches. It has no shortage of them. Dotted around Coll’s coastline are 30 lovely sandy beaches – ranging from large sweeping bays, to tiny coves.
Coll’s beaches are blissfully people free. You might meet the odd sheep or cow though, mooching around in the long grass of the machair.
The machair is a rare coastal habitat only found in the north west fringes of Europe. 90% of the world’s machair is in Scotland and Ireland. The machair consists of grassland and shell sand. It supports a vast array of flora and fauna. In the summer, it’s a riot of wildflowers and there’s nowhere more lovely on the planet.
One of the things I loved about Coll’s beaches, were the gigantic dunes that fringed some of them – towering up to 35 metres in height.
Can you can spot Mr G below, on the dunes at Crossapol beach?
Coll’s beaches aren’t located by the roadside, so to visit them you’ll need to walk. Not huge treks, but enough to get your step count up. Perfect if you’re a fan of hiking and tranquil island beaches like us.
We visited quite a few of Coll’s beaches during our trip. These were our favourites:
Clabhach – a beautiful cove with turquoise water and curious sheep.
Cliad – a lovely, beach. Perfect for rock-pooling.
Traigh Gharbh – like a Scottish Colourist painting. A real life watercolour – sublime.
The Isle of Coll is a wildlife lover’s paradise, especially if you love birds or marine life. There are frequent sightings of basking sharks, whales, dolphins and seals in the waters around the island.
One of my wildlife watching highlights on Coll, was sitting on the beach at Cliad, watching seals basking in the sunshine, while Mr G was off climbing dunes. Sitting still isn’t something he does much of.
One curious seal, took an interest in the boy and I, and swam quite close to where we were sitting.
Like its neighbour Tiree, Coll is a great place to spot hares. We saw loads of them as we travelled around the island.
Coll is a good place to spot otters too. We didn’t see any, but we found otter tracks at Gorton Bay. Any otter sightings on my travels have been chance encounters. Peering through binoculars for hours on end isn’t something I have the patience for.
Although not wild, I had to share these beautiful Eriskay Ponies we met. They’re a hardy breed, native to the Isle of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides.
There’s a large RSPB Nature reserve on Coll, with parking, an information centre and a viewing platform at Totronald (6 miles west of Arinagour), plus parking and an information board at Crossapol.
Coll is one of the best places in the UK to spot the corncrake. The corncrake is a summer visitor to the UK (mainly, to north west coastal regions), arriving mid-April and departing in August. Corncrakes like to hide in long, reed like grass and are fairly hard to spot.
They’re not hard to hear though. The male has a distinctive, rasping call. There’s no mistaking the call of a corncrake.
We visited the reserve several times during our time on Coll and heard them each time. I may (or may not) have caught a glimpse of one too – right size and colour, but too quick to be certain.
Corncrakes are on the conservation red list, as their numbers have declined dramatically over the years. Thankfully, the RSPB are doing a great job protecting their natural habitat. It’s a joy to hear their call – even if they are camera shy.
The Isle of Coll is also a great place to spot the lapwing (peewit). Wherever we walked they were singing overhead. Like the corncrake, they have a distinctive call. It’s a sound I adore. Sadly, the lapwing is also on the red list.
Besides the corncrake and lapwing, we spotted large numbers of geese (white-fronted and greylag) on the island.
Almost as frequent as the call of the lapwing during our time on Coll, was the call of the cuckoo – one of the loveliest sounds of summer.
History – from coastal castles to summit cairns
Coll isn’t the most obvious island to visit if you’re a history lover. Scratch beneath the surface though and you’ll discover historic gems aplenty.
The most famous historic site on the island is at the head of Loch Breachacha. It’s where two castles stand a stone’s throw from each other.
The more modern of the two, known as Breachacha Castle, is actually a mid-eighteenth century country house. It was built by Hector MacLean, 13rd Laird of Coll.
Samuel Johnston and James Boswell stayed at the castle in October 1773 during their famous tour of the Western Isles. Johnston was initially impressed with his island abode, but later described it as a ‘tradesman’s box”.
Today, the building is in a fragile state. The current owners are carrying out renovation work, which will hopefully see the historic building returned to its former glory.
Next to Breachacha Castle, stands its predecessor – Old Breachacha Castle. It dates to the 15th century, and was also a stronghold of the Macleans of Coll. They lived in the castle until the 1750s, when they abandoned it and moved into their new pad next door. The castle fell into a ruinous state.
It was restored in the 1960s, preserving as much of the original castle as possible.
How ironic, that the medieval fortress went on to outlast its modern successor as a habitable home.
Besides the Breachacha twins, study a map of Coll and you’ll find a number of Duns (ancient forts) once stood on the island.
The Macleans of Coll, built our next historic gem too.
Maclean’s Tomb was commissioned in the early nineteenth century by Alexander Maclean of Coll. It was intended to be a family burial aisle. Only Maclean, his wife and a family friend are buried there.
Although lacking in clan burials, Maclean’s Tomb is a wonderful and slightly surreal monument. It’s not what you’d expect to find standing beside a quiet cove on a small Scottish island.
Another hidden gem on Coll is Killunaig Church. You could pass Killunaig Church, without realising it was there.
The church was the medieval parish church of Coll and was dedicated to Saint Findoca. The first record of it dates to 1433. Over the years, it’s been covered by sand from a nearby beach. Only 1.5 metres of wall are visible above ground. These are the upper section of church wall, which stand 2 metres above floor level.
No trace of medieval grave slabs mentioned in an eary 19th century description of the burial ground remain, but some upright stones have stood the test of time.
Located near the RSPB Nature Reserve at Totronald are a couple of standing stones.
The stones are known as ‘Na Sgialaichean’, which means the teller of tales in Gaelic. I love the name, as it conjures up images of ancient monoliths, weaving a tale thousands of years old.
If you visit the beach at Crossapol, you might stumble across another ancient standing stone.
Coll’s coastline is rocky, so it’s no surprise a number of ships have been wrecked off the island over the years.
A walk to Gorton Bay at low tide, will reveal the wreck of ‘The Harmonie’ – a wooden barque from Norway. The ship came to a not so harmonious end when it ran ashore on the island on 26 January 1890.
All but one of the crew survived.
Today, ‘The Harmonie’ lies embedded in the sandy bay, covered in seaweed.
Another testament to the danger of the sea, stands near the harbour at Arinagour. Aimed at the Isle of Mull, is a 90mm gun from WWII. The gun was salvaged from an armed merchant ship during a dive.
A summit cairn and rocking stone – Ben Hogh
Besides history, Mr G and the Wee White Dug, one of my other great loves is hiking. The best hikes incorporate history and scenic views.
Ben Hogh, the highest point on the Isle of Coll, was one of those hikes.
At 106 metres, it’s not a challenging hill to climb, but what it lacks in height, it makes up for with wow factor.
Near the summit is a huge boulder known as the Queen’s Stone or Clach na Ban-righ. The stone is described as a rocking stone, as it’s balanced on top of three small stones. It was dragged into position naturally, by a glacier during the last Ice Age.
The stone’s unique appearance has made it the stuff of legend. Some say it was thrown in a battle between giants, while others say it was used in Druid rituals.
Near Clach na Ban-righ is a summit cairn with a difference. It’s not the customary pile of stones, placed on the summit by visitors over the years.
At the top of Ben Hogh stands a trig point, located slap bang in the middle of an ancient kerbed cairn.
And what a view too – wowzer.
I discovered we’d been in the same field as this chap at the end of our walk – yikes.
The Isle of Coll is the only Scottish island to have been awarded ‘Dark Sky’ status. Dark Sky status, means it’s one of the best places in the UK for stargazing. On a clear night, you can view the Milky Way with the naked eye.
We visited in May, when it never really gets very dark, so we didn’t see the Milky Way. The sky was beautifully clear though, giving us a nice view of the moon and plenty of twinkly stars.
For stargazing, it’s best to visit is in the darker months when daylight hours are short. If you’re lucky, the Northern Lights may also make an appearance.
One of the things that makes me immensely proud of this wonderful wee country called Scotland, is the quality of the food I’m served throughout it. It doesn’t matter how tiny the village, or remote the location – I never have any problems finding good food on my travels. The Isle of Coll was no exception.
During our time on the island, we dined at the Coll Hotel – enjoying two lunches, one evening meal and elevenses.
The hotel varies its menu daily and prides itself on serving quality local produce. From shellfish caught in creels off the island, to hand dived scallops from Mull, grass fed Coll lamb and vegetables grown by island farmers – at the Coll Hotel, the food travels as short a distance as possible to reach the table.
There’s nothing to rival fresh, local produce – especially when it’s washed done with a rather fine glass of wine.
Some of my Coll culinary highlights were a delicious tomato, pepper and orzo dish with roasted cauliflower (the boy’s favourite).
He’s a cauliflower fiend.
Then, there was the heavenly sweet potato gnocchi.
Mr G was equally bowled over by the food at the Coll Hotel. He raved for days after eating a starter of Tobermory smoked salmon & avocado stack with oatcakes. He’s repeatedly rated it his favourite ever starter, and for a man who eats out lots – that’s quite the accolade.
Besides great food, we also found a warm welcome and lovely ambiance at the Coll Hotel. It’s the kind of place you set foot inside and immediately feel relaxed.
I think the relaxed vibe rubbed off on the boy too. He was really well behaved each time we ate there and didn’t once give us his customary, menacing growl to harass us into feeding him scraps.
Visit the Isle of Coll and discover your own top five
And there you have it – my top five things to see and do on the Isle of Coll. You might visit and come up with a completely different list of favourites.
And that’s what’s so wonderful about Coll – it means different things to different people.
Coll is a joy to visit and a wrench to leave.
If you’ve enjoyed this blog, you may also like this one about the neighbouring Isle of Tiree.
Until next time …