HAVING splashed across the strand, the Colonsay Hotel van bumps over

the rough road for our unannounced visit to the owner of Oronsay. ''I

doubt if he'll talk to you,'' hotelier Kevin Byrne has warned me. But

he's heard a rumour that there could be difficulties over access for

visitors. He's worried about his hotel guests and wants the Glasgow

Herald along ''for interest.''

Oronsay Priory is now in sight. Late medieval sources show that it was

a house of Augustinian canons, dedicated to Columba, with the saint

supposed to have set foot on Oronsay before sailing on to Iona.

Two Irish Franciscan missionaries reported in 1624 that the priory was

in a ruinous condition. Oronsay passed through Campbell hands to the

MacNeills, and was bought, along with Colonsay, by Lord Strathcona in


The present Lord Strathcona sold Oronsay to Adam Bergius. Five years

ago it was bought by an American, Ike Colburn, for a sum in excess of

#150,000. There's a persisting rumour on Colonsay that a member of the

royal family wanted to buy Oronsay, but was put off by the public


As we approach the priory a couple are hurriedly packing up from a

picnic among the ruins. It's Ike Colburn, and he and Byrne have words

about the access situation. Then I become the first journalist in

Britain to get an intervew with the proprietor of Oronsay. Why did Ike

Colburn buy it?

''Because I saw an advertisement in Country Life in America and

thought it was an attractive place, but I didn't have it in mind to buy

an island.'' Did he know about Scotland? ''My mother was from Edinburgh.

But she was a city born and bred type, and she wouldn't be caught dead

on this island.'' Mr Colburn informs me: ''I was involved in the late

fifties in trying to buy North Uist.'' One of the members of the

syndicate was Adlai Stevenson.

Did Mr Colburn know about the importance of the ecclesiastical

monuments of Oronsay? ''The advertisement told me that the ruins were

there, but I had no idea of their extent and significance. I couldn't

believe it when I arrived and saw how wonderful they were and what a

dreadful condition they were in.''

Though he is due to leave for America the next day, the proud owner

insists on giving me a conducted tour. It's said that he's spent more

than #1m on building works on Oronsay, bringing in specialist tradesmen

from Lothian. He won't put a figure on it, but shrugs: ''I guess I've

spent a lot of money.''

What has he been doing to the ruins? ''We went to Ancient Monuments in

Edinburgh. We were told that we have no responsibility for maintaining

the monuments. They have no responsibility for maintaining the

monuments. But we can't do anything to it without their permission, and

it's private property.''

He takes me into the Prior's House which was restored before his time.

''When we came these stones were lying on the floor, covered with green

moss and slime. They're now displayed according to the Oronsay School

and the Iona School of sculpture. You see these windows we've put in?

That's special toughened glass so that the rain no longer blows in. And

no grants for this work,'' he adds with satisfaction. ''We did what was

necessary to be done.''

He's cleared away weeds that were choking the priory ruins and has

created a grassy sward. He's had stone walls moved back and rebuilt

because he considered that they were too close to the magnificent

Oronsay Cross with its depiction of the crucified Christ.

His wife Frances comes along. ''It's a spectacular island,'' she

enthuses. ''It's a combination of the religious associations and the

scenery.'' What about this rumour about public access? ''We've never

done anything to stop the public coming,'' he stresses, clearly pained

by the accusation. ''As a common courtesy an organised party should

notify my manager that they're coming. It's a bit disconcerting to look

out and suddenly see a bus load.''

Would he ever sell Oronsay? ''No. We've put too much into it, a lot of

money and a lot of care. There's no way we'll let it go down to what it

was. Maybe we'll give it to the National Trust for Scotland. I've talked

to people in the trust about it already.''

I am then given a tour of the restored farm steadings, the Colburns'

living quarters. The scale, the sheer style take one's breath away.

''I've left all the walls and openings as they were,'' he explains. The

bow window he designed seems to take the long whitewashed room out into

the Atlantic. ''Go upstairs,'' he urges. In what was a loft are antique

four-posters covered with exquisite fabrics. In the conservatory the

white chairs are stacked at the end of the season. He brings in Gaelic

singers for ceilidhs for his guests.

The ducks sitting by their designer pond in the courtyard are black

and white, the theme colours of the house. But there's even more. The

affable Colburn takes me outside. He's commissioning Penelope Hobhouse,

the international doyen of garden design, to lay out the garden at

Oronsay priory. She is looking at monastic gardens in Italy and France,

and will perhaps also seek inspiration on the monastic remains on rocky

Skellig Michael off the Atlantic coast of Kerry in Ireland.

Work will start next spring, with the garden divided into ''theme''

rooms in keeping with the priory's history and character. The Colburn

garden on Oronsay is likely to rival if not surpass the gardens laid out

by the Strathconas at Colonsay House and perhaps also the Horlicks

garden on Gigha.

Few people on Colonay know that Ike Colburn is a well-known American

architect, designer of the noted 1000-seat Episcopalian Cathedral of

South Michigan, built in the round. I wonder: could he be planning the

ultimate monument to his ownership of Oronsay, the restoration of the

Lord of the Isles's priory where he has the right of burial? He and his

wife know all about Lord George MacLeod's restoration of the monastic

buildings on Iona. They chartered a yacht to take them round the

islands, and Mrs Colburn can tell you the story of Oronsay, stone by

stone almost.

''I've thought about it,'' Mr Colburn confesses.''I'd love to rebuild

the tower of the priory.'' It's not the money; the permission of Ancient

Monuments would need to be obtained.

It's time to go. Kevin Byrne is satisfied that there's no access

problem. Ike Colburn borrows a pen from me. It looks like a legal

agreement he's signing, no doubt for more restoration work while he and

Mrs Colburn rejoin the high society circles of Boston for the winter.

''But we'll be back on Oronsay in the spring.''