I thoroughly enjoyed last night's talk, at the Kilchoan Learning Centre, by West Highland Hunting's head stalker Niall Rowantree, ably assisted by stalker Stevie Grant. In just under two hours, they gave us an overview of the activities of West Highland Hunting, the branch of Ardnamurchan Estate's business which deals with its hunting, shooting and fishing interests; an insight into the deer they keep - which include red, roe, fallow, Père David and muntjac, with particular emphasis on the Estate's large herds of red deer; and the environmental considerations of keeping deer.
It was a fascinating talk, too much to take in at a single sitting, but what interested me most was Niall's emphasis on the importance of working with the local community. This didn't refer to the Estate's ongoing concern over poaching, though it must be heartbreaking for the stalkers when beasts which they are anxious to keep as part of the bloodstock of their herds are slaughtered - Niall appealed once again to both residents and visitors to contact the Estate on 01972 510 208 or himself on 07920 858 263 if anyone sees anything suspicious. It was more that at one point he mentioned a local crofter/farmer who has realised the potential of deer farming and had begun to put areas of his land aside for a herd of deer as well as exploiting some of the crofting townships' common grazings for the red deer they hold.
Deer have huge advantages to any farmer. They require no veterinary services. The only supplementary feeding required is over the winter - venison is a wonderfully lean meat but it leaves deer with little in the way of fat reserves for the cold - and the Estate here has the advantage that they are now using draff, a byproduct of the Ardnamurchan Distillery which they supplement with further ingredients. They can be slaughtered on site: the Estate has its own butchery and cold store, and packages meat for the local shop as well as for sale elsewhere. And finally, there is a huge and still rising demand for venison, to the extent that red deer meat is now being imported into the UK from New Zealand.
I returned home to TV programme which featured Ben Fogle on a farm in the Namibian desert. The couple he visited were almost subsistence farmers, but they fed well, their main meat supply coming from these beautiful animals, gemsbok (oryx) - probably the Namibian equivalent of red deer in size and in their superb adaptation to living in a their particular wilderness. Which set me thinking. Looking at the Highland landscape and seeing large sheep breeds, an infamous import from England at the time of the Clearances, and heavy cattle, which churn up the soil, and comparing them as an agricultural product to red deer, it is very surprising that more local crofting communities haven't given careful consideration to the alternative of farming deer - particularly if the Estate's extensive expertise is available to help them.
Some time ago, the Diary carried a post - here - about the caves on the side of this hill, which overlooks Bay MacNeil and is visible from the lighthouse road at the back of Grigadale farmhouse.
It is marked on the OS map as Sgurr nam Meann. A few days ago, an anonymous comment was added to the post, which read, "It is not Sgurr nam Meann it is called Ciorre Bheinn stop changing names, ask any Local who I am sure will confirm." So I did.
The local I spoke to was Alastair MacColl, who lives in nearby Portuairk. Alastair confirmed that what the anonymous commentator had written was correct: the hill is called Coire Bheinn.
I checked the earliest detailed map of West Ardnamurchan, William Bald's map of 1806. He marks the hill very clearly but, sadly, doesn't give it a name.
The name Sgorr nam Meann appears in the first OS map of the area, the 1" First Series 'Coll' published in 1885 - clipping to the right.
When the early surveyors from the OS first mapped an area, they recorded the names of features in a 'Name Book'. These have recently been made available online through Scotland's Places - link here. The question is, to whom did they talk, because it is quite likely that they would have been given different names by different people? In its introduction to the Name Books records, Scotland's Places says, "The collector, usually an officer in the Ordnance Survey, would consult local historians and etymologists (authorities) in order to fix the spelling (the received name) of each 'object' (natural feature, inhabited place, building and so on)". And herein, perhaps, lies the problem - that the people they consulted were middle class, literate, and perhaps an incomer, rather than a local person who knew the long-used names of the features. Sometimes the Name Book records more than one possibility - the only way to find out whether this applies to Coire Bheinn is to see the Name Book for this area.
Inevitably, as the collective memory of the old names dies, the OS map will become the repository of Ardnamurchan's names - Coire Bheinn will forever be called Sgurr nam Meann. Unless, of course, the remaining locals who know the correct names make the effort to record them. I, for one, would be pleased to help in this process.
The last few months have seen an explosion of fungi, with varieties appearing which we've never seen before. This is a good example of the pretty ones. We've only found it in one place this year, growing on gravel near the gate on the track which leads to Glendrian.
Identifying fungi is a nightmare, so this post comes with a health warning, something along the lines of, "While every attempt has been made to provide an accurate identification, extreme caution should be exercised...." etc. That said, we think this is the orange peel fungus, Aleuria aurantia, which is described as not very common in the UK.
This one might, just might be a butter waxcap, Hygrocybe ceracea. It's the right shape and has a yellow stem. The websites which try to help one identify fungi say that looking at the gills on the underside is important, so....
....very reluctantly we pulled this beauty up, took another picture, and then shoved it back into the grass in the hope it might continue to grow.
In places, whole hillsides are infested with fungi, this one by the sheds at the south end of Loch Mudle. These may be Hygrocybe splendidissima, the splendid wax cap, or it might be Hygrocybe coccinea, the scarlet waxcap, or even Hygrocybe punicea, the crimson waxcap, or.... it might be something quite different.
To make matters worse, these look very similar but have a more pyramidal shape and are a brighter shade of red. Whether they're different, and whether....
....either of the previous red ones is the same as this one, is a mystery to us. The very good website here, which shows pictures of 25 different waxcaps, is very well laid out but.... sorry, leaves me lost - but not as lost as on this site, which has hundreds of pictures of fungi, illustrating what a hugely successful group they are.
Then there's this one. It might, just possibly, be the same as the previous one but it's huge - look at the ladies' boot placed behind it to give a scale. Research on the web suggests it is another waxcap, except older and, therefore, both bigger and more turned inside-out, and that it's edible, in which case it would feed a family of four - if they were prepared to take the risk.
We had a small reception committee waiting as we approached the car park at Fascadale this morning, five red deer of which these two sat for some time, not ten yards from our car, more curious than bothered by our presence.
Fascadale is on Ardnamurchan's north coast, centred on a bay into which the Allt Fascadale meanders. Its name is derived from the Norse, aska, ship, and dalr, dale, evidence that the Vikings not only landed here but also developed the fields around the bay. At this time of the year, with the sun so low, much of the area is in shadow, but the hills glow where the sun touches them.
We walked along the ridge that rises along the east of the burn, looking across it to the fields which were once also worked by the people of the clachan that existed for hundreds of years after Viking times. The fields were surrounded by drystone walls which are still substantial enough to be picked out by the low sun, as were the parallel lines of the rig and furrow system the people used. Also visible are the straight ditches cut on the instructions of Sir Alexander Murray of Stanhope, who owned Ardnamurchan Estate in the early 18th century.
To the northeast we looked round the coast towards the hills of Moidart and the flatter lands of Skye. The rectangular ditches on the flat land in the middle ground are probably another legacy of Sir Alexander, a man who seemed obsessed by the idea of draining any land where a ditch could be dug.
By this time we had climbed high enough to be walking directly into the sun. The five deer moved ahead of us, still not too worried by our presence. Later they went down to the burn, crossed it, and returned towards Fascadale along the hill opposite us.
We walked steadily uphill, stopping frequently to catch our breath, disappointed when the sun went behind cloud and the colours were lost from the landscape. We stopped on top of a small peak at 300m OD, three kilometres from Fascadale, which commanded a magnificent view across the Minches to Rum, Eigg and Muck.
As we dropped back down into the Allt Fascadale glen and turned back towards the car park the sun came out again, all too briefly. There's no doubt that, except when the heather is in full bloom, this is the best time of year for colour in these hills.
As a bonus to a very enjoyable morning's walking, we saw this very smart stonechat on a gate near Achateny. His colours seem to mimic those of the hills.