Coll (Gaelic Cola) is an island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. It's about 12 miles long by 3 miles wide with a population of 200, mostly in the ferry port of Arinagour (Gaelic Àirigh nan Gobhar). Coll is rocky and tussocky, dotted with little lochans and lochs, and with sandy beaches heaped up into sand dunes. If it looks familiar, it’s because the author Mairi Hedderwick grew up here, and used it as the basis for her “Katie Morag” stories set on the fictional island of Struay. Coll is separated by a short strait from the island of Tiree, and the two are easily combined for a visit.
Coll is formed of Lewisian gneiss, creating rocky terrain poor for growing crops or raising livestock. Its name may derive from Old Norse kollr for such lumpy landscape, and it was part of the Norse "Kingdom of the Isles" until re-assigned to Scotland in 1266. It was then a stronghold of the Macleans, who built Breachacha Castle, but in the 16th century they feuded bloodily with a rival branch of the Macleans. In the 17th century the family united against the Earl of Argyll, who captured the castle but was arrested for treason, so they got to keep the castle. The island population peaked at around 1000 in the early 19th century but then came the post-Napoleonic slump and the Highland potato famine. There was mass emigration (even the Clan Chief left for South Africa), the estate was sold, and the new owners set about clearing out the rest of the population. There's never been employment or investment to draw people back, so Coll remains a rocky sparsely-populated landscape.
Most visitors reach Coll on the Calmac ferry from Oban. The crossing takes about 3 hours, with the ferry continuing from Coll to Tiree. Daily sailings Apr-Oct, with one ferry per week (Wednedays) continuing to Barra. Nov-March sailings are on M, Tu, Th, Sa and Su. Most sailings depart early from Oban, so you’ll probably spend the previous night there. You will need to do so if you come by bus or train, as these take 3 hours from Glasgow, with the latest service leaving around 18:15 the previous evening. The ferries from Coll back to Oban, if they’re on time, connect with public transport to Glasgow same evening.
Return fares are £98 for a car plus £19 per person including the driver. A “Hopscotch” ticket, visiting Coll plus Tiree, is £126 per car plus £24 per person (in summer 2020). Pedal bikes go free.
A day-trip from Oban to Coll is possible in summer on Weds and Sats, giving you 8-10 hours ashore. The other days' sailings only give you two hours, hardly worth the bother - it's pointless to come to Coll if you have to keep glancing at your watch.
The ferry follows a scenic route across the bay from Oban, through the narrows between Mull and Ardnamurchan (without stopping at either) then across the open sea. Unless the weather’s foul, stay on deck and look out for marine life such as dolphins, porpoises and seals.
The 1 ferry jetty on Coll is half a mile from Arinagour, the main settlement.
- 2 Coll airfield (COL IATA) (6 miles southwest of Arinagour along B8070). Hebridean Air Services fly between Oban (Connel airfield) and Coll on Mondays and Wednesdays, with these flights also serving Tiree. During school term, there are extra flights on Fridays and Sundays which can only be booked from the previous Wednesday. The whole operation is basically an airborne school bus, subsidised by the local authority, using BNF Islander light aircraft and with a 10 kg baggage limit. Hebridean Air Services also fly to Islay and Colonsay but with no connection to Coll, you’d have to backtrack to Oban.
There's no public transport or taxi. Most people bring their own car on the ferry. The hotel can pick up guests from the jetty or airfield. Bikes can be hired from several places eg the Post Office, call in advance 01879 230395 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 1 RSPB Bird Reserve, Totronald, Coll PA78 6TB (follow B8070 SW to its end, then turn right up the narrow lane). Any time, day and night. Information room and viewing benches. Their signature bird is the corncrake, a summer visitor, now rare in the UK. Check RSPB website for expected and observed birds by season. Two suggested walks. Please keep dogs under close control. Free, donations welcome.
- Dark Skies: There’s no street lighting, and Coll is far from mainland light pollution. On a clear night stand on the beach (or anywhere clear of car lights), give your eyes five minutes to adjust, and see the stars and planets brighter than ever before.
- Breachacha Castle: there are two, at the SW end of the island near Crossapol. Admire their exteriors from the lane, but neither can be visited. The old castle is a 15th-century tower house, now in private ownership. The “new” castle was built nearby in 1750; in 1773 Samuel Johnson and James Boswell stayed here on their tour of the Hebrides. It’s structurally unsafe and its new owner (as of Nov 2017) faces an immense repair task. See also Wikipedia entries.
- Swim with basking sharks: in recent summers these huge beasts (Cetorhinus maximus, Gaelic Cearban) have often been seen around the island, most often in July & August. Sightings are sporadic but they tend to gather in the narrow sound between Coll and Tiree, where the tides concentrate their plankton food. Basking Shark Scotland run boat trips from Arinagour.
- Surfing is mainly on the exposed Atlantic beaches of Cliad, Feall, Grishipoll and Hogh, plus south-facing Crossapol. Check prospects at www.surf-forecast.com.
- Folk & other concerts throughout the year, frequently in summer, usually at the community centre An Cridhe.
- 1 [dead link] Island Stores, Arinagour PA78 6SY, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. M W F 10:00-17:30, Tu Th 10:00-13:00, Sa 09:30-17:00. General store, stocks basics including fuel. You can order ahead by phone or email.Has been closed, likely for the next year or so (as of March 2020)
- An Acarsaid shop within the Post Office, stocks maps, woollies, crafts, gifts and postcards. There's an ATM here.
- T.E.S. Co. is a small health & organic food shop next to the Island Café.
- The Art Den sells island arts & crafts.
- ReCyColl is a second-hand shop, in the Old Hall at the western edge of Arinagour.
And see “Sleep” listing for Coll hotel restaurant.
Coll is too small to have its own brewery, distillery or pub. There is a bar in the Coll Hotel.
All the short-stay accommodation is in Arinagour. For longer stays, a dozen or so cottages around the island can be rented by the week, see visitcoll.co.uk.
- 1 Coll Hotel, Arinagour, Isle of Coll, ☏ . Cosy hotel, better than its 2 stars suggest, with good restaurant.
- 2 Coll Bunkhouse, Arinagour PA78 6SY, ☏ . Hostel constructed in modern pine, 16 beds in two mixed dorms of six and one room of four. Self-catering kitchen.
- 3 Tigh na Mara B&B, Arinagour, PA78 6SY, ☏ . Seven rooms for bed and breakfast, plus “Wee House” for self-catering. Double room from £75.
4G reception is passable in and around Arinagour since a mobile mast was erected in 2015. Patchy elsewhere, especially east end of the island.
Tiree is one hour away by daily ferry, and is best done on a Calmac “Hopscotch” fare (see “Get in”.) In summer a day-trip is possible on Wednesdays using the ferry to Barra, as this continues beyond Tiree giving you six hours ashore. The other days’ ferries are immediate turn-arounds so you can’t go ashore, but Saturdays in July & August have a double sailing that allows you nine hours on Tiree. It’s not possible to day-trip from Tiree to Coll.
For Barra, in summer the Wednesday ferry takes four hours from Coll via Tiree (no winter service). From Barra you could return to the mainland on the daily five-hour ferry to Oban. Or you could take the 40-minute ferry (4 or 5 per day) to Eriskay, which is linked by causeway to North & South Uist and Benbecula, and thence by further ferry to Harris & Lewis.