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Colonsay House


Colonsay House stands in a sheltered position looking northwards through mature woodland towards Kiloran Bay. The designed landscape is set in rugged wind-blasted Hebridean moor. There is woodland all around Colonsay House. Many species and varieties of trees have established successfully, and the broad mix of habits, forms, leaf shapes and sizes allows a vast range of shrubs and plants to be grown. The Woodland Garden at Colonsay is one of the finest examples of its kind in the UK, on a par with Crarae and Arduaine.

The following is from the Historic Environment Scotland Gardens and Designed Landscapes Inventory. For the most up-to-date Inventory entry, please visit the Historic Environment Scotland website:

Type of Site

An extensive woodland garden and medium-sized informal designed landscape set within rugged Hebridean countryside, containing a significant collection of trees and shrubs.

Location and Setting

Colonsay House stands in a sheltered position looking northwards through mature woodland towards Kiloran Bay. The designed landscape is set in rugged wind-blasted Hebridean moor.

The extent of the designed landscape does not appear to have changed from the layouts on General Roy's map, c.1750, and 1st and 2nd edition OS maps. The B8086 road marks the northern boundary and Kiloran Farm with the woodland around the hill of Cnoc Callanta which skirts Loch Fada forms the western and southern boundaries. The eastern boundary is represented by a line between the end of the boggy pastureland where the B8086 road forks northwards and a Dun at the foot of Blar na Baintighearna.

Landscape Components

Architectural Features

Colonsay House (listed Category B) is a Georgian mansion house with a harled exterior finish, built as a rectangular block in 1722, then extended around 1830 by additional wings linking the block to two outlying pavilions. It was built on the site of St Oran's Chapel for Malcolm McNeill. The statue at Tobar Oran is an early Christian cross dating from the 7th or 8th centuries. It marks the well dedicated to St Oran who was a colleague of St Colomba, and it was originally sited at the ruined village of Ruiasg Buidh. It is found in the gardens to the east of the house. The Sundial (listed Category C(S

is located in the loggia to the west of the house, and is made of red sandstone with the lower base inscribed '1803'. The loggia also hosts the fragment of another early Christian cross, two millstones, and various other stone pieces collected from various parts of the estate. The Lighthouse Lens Folly in the old kitchen garden (now called the Lighthouse Garden) forms the focal point of a circular paved feature and consists of a reconstructed lighthouse lens transported from the Rhuvaal Lighthouse on Islay.

Garden Cottage, to the west of Colonsay House, is a simple two-storey stone-built cottage formerly used for the gardener's accommodation, now converted for paying guests. The Sawmill to the southeast of the house is in a neglected condition. Kiloran Farm consists of a nucleus of farm buildings on the southwestern boundary of the designed landscape, bordering the B8087.

Drives and Approaches

There are two main approaches to Colonsay House, one from the north off the B8086 road, along what was an old path, and the other from the southwest off the B8087 road. The latter approach road, from the southwest, was formerly used as the main drive, and enters the designed landscape just south of Kiloran Farm then crosses the burn before diverting to the southeast around the bottom of the shrubbery, Lighthouse Garden and Lawn Terraces. It then forks in two, with the northern road going up to Colonsay House, and the south fork connecting the Sawmill and Garden Cottage. The north drive is used as the main drive for visitors today and follows a straight line path shown on the OS map of 1878, passing through a small area of estate parkland before meeting one fork of the south drive and turning west to arrive at the house.


There is woodland all around Colonsay House, with the most important shelterbelt planting to the southeast and east of the house, planted to protect the house and garden from the winds coming straight off the moor from the Atlantic. Many species and varieties of trees have established successfully, and the broad mix of habits, forms, leaf shapes and sizes allows a vast range of shrubs and plants to be grown in the shelter created nearer to ground level. Sycamore, beech, larch, lime, birch, ash, rowan, Scots pine and alder all thrive in this part of landscape. Oak is very successful too. Lower down the slopes of Cnoc Callanta some oak specimens reach a normal 9m in height or more, but higher up the slopes towards Loch Fada and the edges of the woodland, they are kept down to 1.5m by the fierce winds. The alder tends to grow on the woodland edge too, and around Loch Fada where the soil is permanently moist.

There is a block of coniferous woodland around the Sawmill in the southeastern corner of the designed landscape. To the north, northeast and northwest of the house are small protective pockets of woodland, containing well spaced apart sycamore, larch and Scots pine, before the woodland opens up to parkland to the north of the house. There is a small parkland area to the north of Colonsay House, bounded by the B8086. The main drive used today comes through this parkland which contains specimen sycamore and Scots pine.

The Gardens

The Woodland Garden at Colonsay is one of the finest examples of its kind in the UK, on a par with Crarae and Arduaine. A series of named walks criss-crosses the area to the southeast of the house. There are 'Burnside' and 'Lower Terrace' walks which provide views of the burn and some of the larger specimen Rhododendrons and cordylines. There are also rarely seen tender ferns, candelabra Primulas and skunk cabbage (Lysichitum americanum), all growing at ground level on the damp slopes around the burn. Gunnera manicata, with its large rhubarb-like leaves thrives in the damp conditions in this part of the garden. There are also shrubs such as Olearia, Fuchsia, Escallonia, and Griselinia all around this area, and repeated higher up in the Woodland Garden. Beyond the 'Upper Terrace' walk there are areas where an entire understorey of the large-leaved Rhododendron macabeanum is growing up, creating a Himalayan forest effect. There are many species Rhododendron specimens throughout the Woodland Garden, as well as Camellias, tree ferns (Dicksonia Antarctica), bamboo, Pittosporum and Griselinia littoralis, the latter self-seeding to such an extent that it is becoming a pest. The Woodland Garden is being extended throughout the woodland at Colonsay, with Rhododendrons becoming established under the trees around the sawmill. Such are the ideal conditions that have been created under the woodland canopy, a few Rhododendrons have actually 'escaped' and become established under rocky outcrops in the lee of Cnoc Callanta hill. These appear to be 'desirable' species or hybrids and not the invasive R. ponticum.

The Pond and Dwarf Garden form a transition between the Woodland Garden and the more formal garden areas closer to the house. Located to the west of the Woodland Garden (SW of Colonsay House), they are slightly less informal in style than the woodland. The pond has several specimen Gunnera plants and massed groups of skunk cabbage around the edges and the Dwarf Garden consists of massed dwarf evergreen Azaleas set amongst boulders, with Japanese maple specimens providing height. In front of the house are two long grass terraces with some very tall Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) specimens on the eastern side of the terraces. The Tobar Oran cross is found beyond these trees. The Abhainn a' Mhuilinn burn runs at the bottom of the terraces and more informal wild gardens known in part as 'The Wilderness' extend southeastwards from the house under the trees. The planting here is a mixture of waterside-loving skunk cabbage, candelabra Primulas and Gunneras, with specimen shrubs like Hebe salicifolia,Phormium tenax, Photinia fraseri, contorted willow and recently planted Podocarpus. The grass is left long, planted with massed bulbs and wildflowers throughout this area, and paths are mown regularly.

The loggia directly to the west of the house is the first of the more formal style gardens. A mature specimen Cordyline australis forms a central focal point, and there is a post and rope screen on the south to divide it from the lawn terraces. The sundial is sited here, along with other stone fragments of artefacts, and there is a conservatory against the north wall. The paths consist of random stone and the planting is informal cottage style, including columbine, spurge, Libertia, Geranium, marjoram and chives. Agapanthus is grown in a single row along the entire front wall of the house, and there are some tender climbers growing against the house and loggia walls, including Magnolia grandiflora, scented-leaved Geraniums and jasmine. Steps at the west end of the loggia lead up through a gate to the Rose Garden, which is more a combination of mixed shrubs and specimen bush roses, than a garden dedicated solely to roses. An old copper urn forms the centerpiece to this garden, which also hosts a vegetable and fruit production area at its western end, screened by beech hedging. The Shrubbery and Lighthouse Garden lead on westward from the Rose Garden. The Shrubbery contains specimen box, Pieris, tree fern, Fatsia japonica, and Euphorbia mellifera, with a row of Fuchsia bushes against the south wall. The Lighthouse Garden is the former kitchen garden, but is now of a more formal, lower maintenance design with a central paved area. The centerpiece of the paved area is a lighthouse lens folly, the lens coming from the Rhuvaal Lighthouse on Islay and re-built on a stone plinth on site. The paving is made up of random stone paving and pebbles and there are specimen Eucalypts and Hebes in the lawns around. There is no walled garden as such at Colonsay, but the Lighthouse Garden and shrubbery have walls of varying height almost surrounding them, and the rose garden and loggia are part-walled.

Visitor Access, Directions & Contacts

The following is from the Historic Environment Scotland Gardens and Designed Landscapes Inventory. For the most up-to-date Inventory entry, please visit the Historic Environment Scotland website:

Reason for Inclusion

An extensive woodland garden and medium-sized informal designed landscape, started in the early 18th century, set within rugged Hebridean countryside, and containing an outstanding collection of trees and shrubs.

Main Phases of Landscape Development

Established in the early 18th century but the gardens developed mainly in the late 19th and early-mid 20th centuries.

Site History

The islands of Colonsay and Oronsay have a rich ecclesiastical history. Columba and his colleague Oran are said to have settled here after leaving Ireland in 563. There are many religious artifacts in the grounds at Colonsay and the surrounding countryside.

In the 17th century, the islands passed from the McDuffs to the Duke of Argyll, and in 1701 the Duke of Argyll sold them to Malcolm McNeill. He built Colonsay House in 1722 on the site of the old cemetery which belonged to the ruins of Kiloran Abbey. The McNeills owned and improved the house and grounds for more than 200 years. Sir John McNeill bought the islands for £40,000 in 1870 and began an extensive tree planting programme. He led a distinguished military career. King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra stayed at Colonsay House in 1902 and planted commemorative rhododendrons.

It can be reasonably assumed that prior to 1926 the gardens consisted largely of kitchen garden and shrubberies around the house. An engraving in Gordon's Monasticon (1868) of a sketch of Colonsay House made around 1865 shows evidence of some gardens immediately in front of the house. In 1904, the first Lord Strathcona bought the islands from Sir John McNeill, and he continued to plant a broad mixture of hardwood trees and Rhododendrons (including R. ponticum which has become a pest) to create shelter.

Most of the gardens seen today are the work of the father of the present Lord Strathcona. He was persuaded to create the ambitious large-scale woodland gardens by his relation Gerald Loder of Wakehurst Place in Sussex (now an outpost of Kew Royal Botanic Gardens). Hard frosts on Colonsay are rare, the rainfall is lower than mainland Argyll and Bute, and the free-draining slightly acid soil is ideal for supporting a very broad range of plants, including tender exotics.

In the 1930s the gardens contained almost every Rhododendron species and hybrid available in the UK, and many were given to Lord Strathcona by, amongst others, the Rothschilds of Exbury, the Balfours of Dawyck and the Stirling Maxwells of Pollock House. A collection of Southern hemisphere plants was also started, including Australian and New Zealand specimens such as Cordyline australis, Lomatia, Acacia and Leptospermum, and Chilean plants like Embothrium coccineum and Crinodendron hookerianum. The son of the present Lord Strathcona now lives in Colonsay House with his family and is continuing to develop the exotic collections and open up views through the now mature woodland.


Early 20th Century (1901-1932)

Features & Designations


  • Historic Environment Scotland An Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in Scotland

Plant Environment

  • Woodland Garden
  • Environment
Key Information




Ornamental Garden

Plant Environment

Woodland Garden

Principal Building

Country House


Early 20th Century (1901-1932)





Open to the public


Electoral Ward

Islay North, Jura and Colonsay



  • Historic Scotland