Colonsay and Oronsay Summary

Colonsay and Oronsay


Principal Sources


Book of Islay pp 5-8 1203


RMS II (2743) 1503

RMS III (3085) 1545

RMS IV (1272) 1558

RMS VII (272) 1610, (1386) 1616

RMS VIII (547) 1623, (1623) 1630

RMS IX (17) 1634

RMS XI (541) 1663, (930) 1666, (1105) 1667


ER XII p 709 1506; p 590 1507

ER XIII p 221 1509

ER XVII p 621, 1541; pp 641-2 1541


AS II (6) 1617, (177) 1624, (188, 190) 1625, (300) 1629, (359) 1630, (693) 1642

Laing Charters No 2561, 1662; No 2845, 1686

Argyll & Bute Archives FH 235 Rental of Colonsay 1642


RHP 2992 Colonsay and Oransay. From an actual Survey made in 1804. By David Wilson.

RHP 3079 & RHP 3048 Plan of the Estate of Colonsay, D Wilson, 1804


Symington Grieve, The Book of Colonsay and Oronsay, London, 1923

J de Vere Loder, Colonsay and Oronsay, Edinburgh, 1935

K Byrne, Colkitto, Colonsay, 1997.

Colonsay’s Family Origins in ‘The Corncrake’, Issues 15, 16 & 17, (2000) at



There is no doubt Colonsay and Oronsay were together worth £20 or 30m Old Extent. This is stated unequivocally in 1506 (ER XII p 709) and 1509 (ER XIII p 221). The issue is slightly complicated in Skene (Celtic Scotland, Vol III, Appendix 3, p 438, 1577-95) where Collonsa is stated to be 30m and Orandsay to be 4 merk land. I think this is a mistake and that Oronsay’s valuation should be included in Colonsay’s.


There is also no doubt that Colonsay, like its neighbours Islay, Jura and Gigha, was divided into quarterlands and eighthlands. Unfortunately we have no evidence for this before 1541 but I do not believe that this was a new system imposed by John MacIan or anybody else. The only problem is that most of the time the assessments of the farms in Colonsay and Oronsay add up to a maximum of 27½ and not 30m. Nearly all documents are consistent in giving the lay properties in Colonsay as 21¼m, Garvard (a possession of Oronsay) as 1¼m and Oronsay itself as 5m, making a total of 27½m. The sole exception is AS II (190) of 1625 where Oronsay is given as £5 or 7½m rather than 5m. Now this may be a mistake – but if not then it does resolve the issue of the missing 2½m.


Another approach is to regard Oronsay’s total of 5m as correct and assume that somehow 2½m has been omitted elsewhere in Colonsay. I can only suggest the east coast farms of Dungalion, Risbuie, Glassert and Clunery which appear in David Wilson’s survey of 1804 but for which I have found no valuations. Formerly these may have been assessed as part of the 5m Kiloran – in which case the problem remains. If, however, their earlier valuations have escaped record then these units may account for the missing merklands. As far as the rest of Colonsay is concerned there may have been some amalgamation and renaming but many farm boundaries have probably remained unchanged for centuries.


There are three main documentary trails for Colonsay and Oronsay. Our earliest record is the rental of 1541 (ER XVII p 621 & pp 641-2) which is repeated in RMS VII (272) of 1610 and RMS XI (1105) of 1667. A second documentary line is represented by RMS III (3085) of 1545 – followed by RMS IV (1272) of 1558. AS II (693) of 1642 stands by itself and belongs to neither of the former groups. Most of these documents match against each other but we do have some anomalies. To investigate these I shall look at the first examples in each of the charter trails – not the later copies.


Some farms (the two Ballireamons, Skallisaig and Balinahard) are treated the same way in all the documents. As far as the other farms are concerned there are some differences – most often with regard to the two charters of 1545 and 1558. There are several townships for which I have no geographic location or which I cannot relate to other known farms. These are:


a) Ballemades. This is named in 1642 as part of Kiloran. Symington Grieve (Colonsay and Oronsay I p 308) refers to it as Baile Mhaide. Because Kiloran is always given as a 5m unit I do not think Ballemades is the same as any of the following names.


b) Balivourich. This is coupled with Mauchrenecleif in 1541 and 1642. It presumably belonged to a member of the MacMhuirich family and derives from Baile (or buaile) + Mhuirich. This name is not present in the 1545 and 1558 lists so was possibly replaced by one of the other baile-names therein – but not Kerremoir which appears alongside Ballevourrie in 1642. In 1751 Balivourich is linked with Kerramore and appears between the two Machries in list order. We know of a Calum Caol MacMhuirich who was active after the battle at Blar an Deabhaidh. Byrne (pp 25-6) gives accounts of his actions and his house at An Corra Dhunan. There are two Corr Dhunan’s on the map today. One, probably the more likely, is at NR 3895; the other is further east at NR 4196.


c) Kerremore (=Ceathramh Mor or big quarterland so nominally 2½m but actually always 1¼m). This appears in the 1545 list but not in 1558 when it is replaced by Kilcattanemoir. However it cannot have been part of Kilchattan since it appears alongside both Kilchattans in 1642. It does not appear at all in 1541. It is linked with Balivourich in 1751 and appears between the two Machries which gives us an approximate location.


c) Kilbride. We can locate this geographically (c. NR 372934) and it appears in 1541, 1610 and 1667 – associated with Maucherybeg. It does not appear in 1545, 1558 or 1642. It could be the same as Ballemoir (1545, 1558), Karremoir (1545, 1642) or Balleinima (1545, 1558). It cannot be Kilcattanemoir since it appears alongside both Kilchattans in 1541. I think Kerremoir is the most likely match, simply on geographical grounds.


d) Ballemoir (=the big township) and Balleinima. These only appear in 1545 and 1558. Either of these could be Kilbride or Balivourich.


Several of the above are baile-names which appear to be newly coined after 1541. It seems that baile was used as an element in new place-names during the sixteenth century.


There is no evidence that pennylands were ever present in Colonsay or Oronsay. As far as davachs are concerned Donald MacKinnon wrote a long article in ‘The Scotsman’ on 28 December 1887 in which he said:


In Colonsay a townland formerly called The Dabhach, as the old people say, now goes by a different name. … ‘The Ceatramh Mor’, or the ‘big quarter’, was once the name of a farm in Colonsay, and Druim a’ Cheithreamh, or ‘the ridge of the quarter’, is still a place-name in that island.


I do not know where ‘The Dabhach’ (or even Kerramore) are exactly and I think we must allow some doubt about the former place-name. North-west of the gap between the two easternmost sections of Loch Fada is a stretch of boggy ground known as Blar an Deabhaidh (OS Sheet CLVI of 1876 – NR 388959). This is famous in Colonsay history as the site of an old battle. In ‘Colonsay’s Family Origins Part 1’ in ‘The Corncrake Issue 15’ ( this is called ‘An Deabhach’ which is translated as ‘apt to dry up’. I do not know if the place name element davach has been transformed; if there was never a davach here in the first place; or if ‘The Dabhach’ and Blar an Deabhaidh are quite separate places.


In ABA FH 235 (Rental of Colonsay 1642) the township of Bw(a)ll Vurich is broken down into ‘thrie Kerrowrand thairof’ and ‘ane uther Kerrowrand’. A kerroran is a unit we come across frequently in Islay and signified a 4s 2d land which was 1/32nd of a whole unit. The four kerrorans of Bw(a)ll Vurich made up the 16s 8d of that eighthland township.


This rental is also significant because whoever made it out referred to the townships as ploughlands – a designation which is exceptionally rare on the west coast. Ballanahard was described as a ‘pleuch land’, everything else was a ‘half pleuch’. This means that the half-ploughlands were eighthlands or 16s 8d units whilst the ploughland was a quarterland or 33s 4d. The consequence is that 4 ploughlands (as 4 quarters) would make up a davach.


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One comment on “Colonsay and Oronsay Summary
  1. Kevin Byrne says:

    Extraordinarily interesting account. Your very exact technical knowledge is invaluable, and may well have provided the clues needed to resolve some of the puzzles. As it happens, Fear an Taigh Drisaig was MacMhuirich and he lived in Dun Meadhonaich, about a km west of Calum Caol MacMhuirrich, on the other side of a rocky spine from the Machairean farms. Many thanks for opening up this interesting avenue.

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