I can’t remember how or when I first heard about MacPhie bagging on the Scottish island of Colonsay, but as soon as I spotted it I wanted to give it a try. I liked the correlation with the Munros and also the homophone, in that MacPhie sounds like Fi.
Sometime later (it could have been years, actually!), the G-Force and I headed off to catch the Calmac ferry from Oban to Colonsay for the weekend.
Here are some of the things I discovered about MacPhie bagging on Colonsay.
1 If you choose a random weekend at the end of a busy summer and pray a little to the weather gods then you might be lucky enough to enjoy a two days of out-of-the-blue October warmth and sunshine. It happened to us.
2 Although I had imagined that Colonsay would be a very long ferry ride, perhaps via another island or two, it turns out that every day throughout the summer months there’s a Calmac ferry that takes little over two hours from Oban. In the winter there are three return ferry journeys per week to Colonsay.
3 If you want to take your campervan to Colonsay you need to have proof that you will not be sleeping in it. The island is not keen on encouraging campervan overnighters and they would like you to spend your money on their accommodation. It does make sense on a small island with a tiny population that relies a great deal on tourism trade.
In any case, there are some nice places to stay that offer a lot more space and mod-cons than a campervan. For example this lovely self-catering apartment, Turnigil, at Colonsay House.
4 Colonsay measure only about eight miles by three miles.
5 Everyone knows everyone on Colonsay, which is not surprising when you learn the population is only about 130.
6 Colonsay neighbours the even smaller isle of Oronsay, which is reached via a tidal causeway.
7 The MacPhie bagging idea came about after an island farmer David was listening to a radio programme about the Munros some 20 or maybe 30 years ago. He was en route to the pub to meet the then Colonsay Hotel owner Kevin Bryne and he suddenly thought: “If Scotland can have the Munros then why can’t we have our own hills list? I chatted with Kevin about naming all the islands hills of 300ft, rather than 3,000ft.”
8 Kevin, a keen walker and outdoors enthusiast, loved the idea and within months he had organised the first hike to walk all of the hills. There is a lot of debate as to how many people started and/or finished that outing but there was whisky involved…
9 There is even more debate as to how many people have walked all the MacPhies in one go in the past two decades and, indeed, how many times Kevin himself, now in his late 60s, has walked them.
10 There is further debate, this time about the spelling of the MacPhies. They could be McFies, MacPhies or MacPhees, among others. Kevin explains: “The name of the hill bagging idea is based, loosely, on the ancient clan that resided on the island as far back as the 13th century. It’s a clan that many people associate with the early settlements of Colonsay.
“I think, strictly speaking this might be spelt MacFie but the spelling that is most often used is MacPhie. The have been many descendants though the centuries with this spelling as their surname. So that is why we have called it MacPhie bagging.”
(I my opinion the hills would be better named MacFi!)
11 A MacPhie is defined as a hill on Colonsay or Oronsay with a summit of at least 300ft. There doesn’t appear to be any prominence rules.
12 There are said to be 22 MacPhies, with 21 on Colonsay and one on the tidal island of Oronsay. When we met Kevin to identify a route on the map for a day’s completion he outlined a route on a somewhat ancient map. His route took in only 20 tops on the main island. I asked about the other one and he said: “Oh, don’t worry about that. I think we have marked them all but maybe I missed one or two. It’s around 21 or 22 in total.”
13 The number of hill tops becomes even more difficult to define when you then use a metric map. A summit of 300ft becomes 91.44m. And when you are actually out walking it’s not easy to tell at some points if you are standing on the highest point or if a top 50m to 100m away is a little taller
14 The ultimate MacPhies challenge is to walk to all summits, including the single summit on Oronsay, in one day. However, there is a tide and 1.5km of causeway sand to take into account and that requires a lot of planning.
15 A round of MacPhies on Colonsay itself in one day is more than enough for the fittest of walkers. Although 20-odd summits over some 20 miles might not seem like the biggest of challenges (we walk many more metres of ascent and miles during some big Munro days) the Colonsay terrain is pretty wild.
We had imagined ourselves running them all in about six hours. It turns out that running was almost impossible because there are few paths and trails. Instead, the route is over, through and beside a thick vegetation of heather, bushes, grass, bogs, marsh and reeds. We walked it all and it took around eight hours (with a diversion to the pub for a pint of beer!).
16 It is probably not a best of ideas to stop at the Colonsay Hotel for a pint before the last two Colonsay MacPhies… but that beer did taste good!
Those last two MacPhies were not easy. It might have been the beer that made us tired or the many previous miles of ups and downs but the two final hill summits really tested us.
17 Not many people have walked all the Colonsay MacFies, let alone the full round including Oronsay too. We may well be the second couple ever to have done so after Kevin and his wife Crista.
18 Although there is no competitive element in terms of speed, Jethro Lennox is claimed to have recorded the fastest time for a continuous circuit of all MacPhies in the remarkable time of 3 hours 56 minutes and 44 seconds.
19 The terrain on Colonsay might be quite tough but don’t let that put you off the MacPhies. Walking the MacPhies takes you to some of the most amazing viewpoints all over the island. We headed north, south, east and west and oohed and ahead over superb views of the island, the neighbouring islands of Mull, Jura, Islay and across to the Scottish mainland, as far afield as Ben Cruachan (possibly!). See a gallery of Colonsay photos.
20 On many summits it’s possible to see across to both east and west coasts of the island of Colonsay.
21 I think, on reflection, that it would be a better idea to walk the MacPhies over several days:
a) If I was to advise, I’d recommend a day of walking the six MacPhies to the north of the island. It’s simple enough to park the car near the stunning sands of Kiloran Bay and walk a loop via these six summits.
b) Another day could be spent hiking the summits to the west of the island.
c) Then a day walking summits to the south-east of Colonsay.
d) A final and leisurely day of bagging the Oronsay summit (so long as you are aware of the tide).
22 Oronsay is also home to an amazing priory ruin, dating back to the mid 1300 and dedicated to St Columba.
23 Kevin is planning a fundraising MacPhies walk next May (2017). He is raising money for educational travel for the children of the island’s primary school. Keep an eye on Friends of Colonsay.
24 Sunday is a day of proper rest for islanders. Only the hotel is open and the cafe for part of the day. The one shop, PO, brewery, bookshop, souvenir shop and gallery shut on Sundays so if you want to buy anything make sure you do so on the other six days of the week.
25 The one food shop is open from 9am to 5pm only. It stocks a good range of food and supplies.
26 The Pantry café does open on a Sunday and serves some great snacks, including the surprisingly delicious haggis and cheese toasted panini. It also serves evening meals on some nights.
27 The Colonsay Hotel is a good place for evening meals every night.
28 The Waiting Room gallery next to the ferry port has some lovely products. I confess I was tempted to buy a few early Christmas gifts.
29 And last but by no means least I discovered that Colonsay is a superbly beautiful and wonderful island. I now have the best of memories of bagging the MacPhies and I will return some day to walk some again (but maybe not all of them!).