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Kevin Byrne, the McPhies and further wonders of Colonsay

Written by Fiona

June 06 2017

I wrote about MacPhie bagging on the Scottish island of Colonsay for the Scots Magazine. It involved island resident Kevin Byrne, 20 odd hills of 300ft or more and a late autumn weekend of sunshine, superb views and wildlife. I was blown away. Read the Scots Mag pdf or the full article below. You can also buy the Scots Magazine and read this article and many others.

Colonsay Island adventure

Kevin Byrne had agreed to meet us off the Friday evening ferry to Colonsay in the island’s only bar.

We were surprised to find him dressed in a suit and bow-tie, although honoured that he thought our weekend visit to the small Scottish isle worthy of such vestured splendour.

I confess I felt scruffy in my walking trousers, boots and lightweight puffa jacket but Kevin didn’t seem to notice.

It turned out he was about to have a meal with his wife, Crista, for his 69th birthday and he was more focused on the map held in one hand and the glass of wine in the other.

Ushering us to a quiet corner of the Colonsay Hotel, he spread out the well-used map on a table and started pointing at features with a worn pencil.

It was clear we, my partner Gordon and I, would need to be sharp-minded if we were to follow Kevin’s directions. As well as being a smart dresser, Kevin is also smart brained and as he talked us though the walk we had planned for the following day we struggled to keep up.

It dawned on me, too, as he detailed a route of some 20 miles via all of Colonsay’s hills of at least 300ft, and one on the neighbouring isle of Oronsay, that he must also be physically fit.

Of course, being a local man of many decades, retired and the island’s self-appointed walking guide, Kevin has had plenty of time to familiarise himself with the terrain of the Inner Hebridean island.

The 300ft hills – nicknamed MacPhies – have also become one of his favourite pursuits.

“If I’m on my own I can walk them all in about seven-and-a-half hours, but if I’m guiding someone it will take at least an hour more, “ he told us, without a hint of boastfulness.

Last summer, Scottish adventurer Mark Beaumont set an impressive pace to complete the MacPhies in around six hours, although it’s Glasgow runner Jethro Lennox who holds the record of just under four hours.

The MacPhies are not meant to be a racing challenge, however, rather a clever marketing attraction for the island, which relies heavily on tourism. They are the brainchild of Kevin and friend David Hobhouse, an island famer, who decided that if Scotland as a whole could have the Munros (Scottish mountains of at least 3,000ft), their island should have the MacPhies. The name MacPhie has been a common surname on Colonsay, originating for a 13th century clan.

For visitors, the MacPhies provide a great focus for a walk on the eight-mile by three-mile island. To walk all 21 MacPhies requires fitness, hiking experience and a favourable low tide to allow you to cross the wide causeway between Colonsay and Oronsay.

Instead, Kevin, recommends people walk “just the Colonsay MacPhies over one day or smaller groups of MacPhies over several different days”.

Returning to the faint pencil line he had been busy drawing on his map, he continued: “The best starting point for your day’s hike is Kiloran Bay to the north-west of the island.

“Then do the seven MacPhies to the north of the island. You can tick the rest off like this and with the weather forecast so good – you really have got lucky – you should be able to navigate fairly easily. I think you’ll easily see the next summit from each hill that you ascend.

“Finish on the MacPhie Beinn Eibhne, to the south, and I’ll pick you up and drive you back to your car.”

Handing us his map and with a smile, Kevin picked up his glass and headed through to the hotel’s dining area.

As Kevin had predicted, the weather on the early October Saturday was unseasonably warm and bright and we departed from beautiful Kiloran Bay in sunshine.

Being keen Munro baggers, it seemed amazingly easy to quickly tick off our first MacPhie, A’ Bheinn Bheag. The views from the summit were incredible, taking in the wide landscape of low-lying island, a dazzling blue sea and neighbouring isles of Mull, Coll and Tiree.

The following two MacPhies, Carn an Eoin then A’ Bheinn Bhreac, took us easterly, across the narrow island, where we were treated to a spectacular panorama of the Scottish mainland and the isles of Jura and Islay.

However, while Kevin was right to say we would easily see the MacPhies summits as we walked, we were duped a few times by walking towards hills that looked to be of 300ft elevation, only to find there were just shy.

And despite being fit hill walkers, we were not prepared for the island’s terrain. There are very few well-trodden paths in the hills and we often found ourselves pushing through dense heather and bushes, as well as areas of bogs and reeds.

Still, the views from so many different parts of the island were more than just reward for our efforts.

After the northerly MacPhies, the route returned to the west coast and six more summits, followed by another cross-island hike at lower level to reach a further two MacPhies and possibly the finest panorama of Jura’s famous Paps that I’ve ever witnessed.

By this point we had walked 15 MacPhies and we felt exhausted. The next four summits were in the middle of the island and we knew that between those and the final two MacPhies was a chance to pop into the hotel for a drink.

Gordon began dreaming of a pint of local beer and I found it hard to argue. In retrospect, a 40-minute break in the bar in the late afternoon of a one-day MacPhies bid wasn’t the best decision but at the time it felt perfect.

It was difficult to leave our empty glasses and we could not have known that the last hilltops would be the toughest. Thick vegetation made for an arduous hike over moorland between Cnoc an t-Samhlaidh to reach Beinn Eibhne.

If it had not been for the promise of a lift at the end and a fabulous sunset, we would have given up and headed directly back towards the road.

We did it though and in the end we were thrilled. We know that few people have walked all the Colonsay MacPhies in one day – and apparently we are only the second couple to do so after Kevin and Crista.

Kevin was also delighted. He confessed: “Many people underestimate the MacPhies because they are each relatively small. You have done very well to walk all of them in such a good time. I think that you will enjoy that last single MacPhie tomorrow on Oronsay.”

And we did. Although a little worried about how our tired legs would cope the walk across the causeway at low tide and on a wide track to the island’s ruined priory was easy going.

Beinn Orasa even had a path to the top and thanks to another blue sky day we enjoyed more fine views of Jura, Islay, the mainland – and back across to the rounded Colonsay hills of the previous day’s challenge.

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