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.
Rona MacKenzie, left, and Rae Woodrow cut the quilters’ cake.