Hugh Smith’s Letter from Islay

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Orsay chapel
Lying off the south-west coast of the Rhinns of Islay is the small island of Orsay and the site of a medieval chapel. The island is also the location for the Rhinns of Islay lighthouse, which was built in 1824-25 by Robert Stevenson of the famous lighthouse-building dynasty.

There is some confusion over which saint gave his name to the chapel and island. Ordinance Survey maps seem to credit them to both St Odhran and St Columba, although it seems highly likely that the chapel was correctly dedicated to the latter.

There is also some evidence to suggest that there was an ecclesiastical presence on the island throughout the 8th and 9th centuries.

The chapel, which stands in a walled enclosure on a promontory on the north-east end of the island, is referred to by Dean Munro in 1549 where he describes the island as ‘having one parish church and is good for fishing’. He also warns of treacherous waters between the island and its neighbouring Islay.

The chapel had fallen into ruin by the end of the 18th century and it is claimed that during the building of the lighthouse the surrounding burial ground was levelled off and that some of the gravestones were disposed of in the crevasses of some nearby rocks.

The only monument now visible within the enclosure is the remarkable tomb known as Hugh MacKay’s Grave (Tung MhicAoidh na Ranna). The area has strong links with the MacKay family, who were appointed as lieutenants of the Rhinns peninsula by the ruling MacDonalds.

Three fragments of an early Christian cross-slab, found beside the MacKay grave in 1959, are now housed in the Museum of Islay Life at Port Charlotte.
Prior to the arrival of the lighthouse, the island was used for cattle grazing by a number of Rhinns folks including the MacNeills of Ellister.

Its only inhabitants in recent years were those who manned the lighthouse before it was fully automated in the mid 1990s.

Quilters’ celebration
Members of the island’s quilters group were in jubilant mood when they celebrated 25 years of happy stitching at a special birthday party in their Islay House Square premises.

The group has enjoyed great success over the past quarter of a century and their outstanding creations have been much admired and sought-after as well as having greatly benefited charities causes on both Islay and Jura.

Cutting the cake and raising the glasses were original group member Rona MacKenzie and founder member and current chairperson Rae Woodrow, who both ensured that all went with a swing in their colourful premises which once were home to hunting dogs.

I wish the quilters well and long may they continue to sew a fine seam.

Didn’t they do well?
Well done to Jackie Ross, who has received the accolade of Special Constable of the Year at the 2017 Scottish Police Excellence Awards ceremony at the Tulliallan Police College.

A delighted Jackie, who has completed close on 11 years as special constable on Islay and Jura, was presented with her award by the Justice Secretary Michael Matheson.

Also on hand to congratulate the winning Ileach was Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, whose father and grandfather were both police officers on the island.

Congratulations are also due to John Rountree, David MacPherson and Douglas Clyne, who have completed 30 years of devoted service with the local firefighters.

The trio’s excellent contribution to this vital fire and rescue service has not gone unmarked.

Hugh Smith, 4 Flora Street, Bowmore,
Islay PA43 7JX. Telephone: 01496 810 658.