Monday, 30 November 2009

First Frost

I think the western end of Ormsaigbeg had half a dozen nights last winter when the temperature dropped below zero. Last night we had this winter's first frost, albeit a light one, as Jack Frost was selective about where he touched. Rime crystallised on tufts of grass growing in the middle of the road, formed as a thin crust in dark nooks under the bracken, and laid a coat across occasional paving stones to catch the unwary; and there was half a centimetre of ice on the surface of a bucket of water in the vegetable garden.

With hardly a breath of wind Kilchoan Bay mirrored a pale sunrise. By the time we walked down to the shop this heron, sitting on a rock just off the end of the jetty, had obviously already enjoyed a good breakfast. Judging by their numbers, herons like this coastline. They're antisocial birds when they're hunting, engaging in ungainly aerial combat as one sees another off his patch. Yet in the late autumn the Bay will see great flights of them, fifteen or twenty at a time. Perhaps its their equivalent of a ceilidh, when the younger herons gather to pair off.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Greadal Fhinn

The day brought a stiff northwestly wind, a wind direction we don't often see, cold but strong enough to blow most of the clouds away. So we took a walk along the back of Ormsaigbeg, eastwards towards Ormsaigmor, roughly following the 100m contour. It's a great walk, as the views are all southward, down the Sound, and the whole village is laid out below.
At the back of the crofts at Ormsaigmor, on a slight knoll called Greadal Fhinn (Fingal's Griddle), is the remains of a stone circle and burial chamber. The history books suggest that it was originally Celtic but was re-used for one of the Viking chiefs who died on the west coast, one Ketil Flatnefr (Flatnose). Ketil originated from Raumsdal in Norway, but, following the upheavals there during the early 9th Century, he shipped all his family to western Scotland, where he was known in the Hebrides as Caittil Fin. He is described as 'a sea-robber', and Ardnamurchan would have been ideally suited as an ambush point for waylaying ships hugging the coastline in their voyage along the west coast. His death is dated at 880AD, and it seems appropriate that his resting place should have a fine view southeastwards down the Sound of Mull towards Ben Talla.

The chamber sits on a mound about 25 metres across. A rough, outer ring of large, flat stones surrounds the two 'chambers' visible in this photograph, the nearer one very much the smaller.

It's a bleak and lonely spot but Ketil has company: a small herd of Highland cows.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Navigating the Sound

After nearly a week being knocked about by the wind, the village woke to a dead-calm sea and a golden morning, with the sun staying out until well into the afternoon. The air is wonderfully clear after its scrubbing, so the cliffs of Mull seem an arms-length away.

This ship came up the Sound shortly before eight this morning: she's pictured passing Tobermory Lighthouse and the entrance to Tobermory Bay. She and her sister ships are regular visitors, and they're about the biggest boats we see in this constricted waterway. She's the Yeoman Bontrup, a self-discharging bulk carrier, and she's down to her lines having loaded aggregate at Glensanda quarry at the south end of Morvern. Everything at Glensanda is on a giant scale: it's the UK's largest 'superquarry' and one of the largest in Europe, unique in that all access is by sea; some 7 million tonnes of granite is extracted annually; and the ships that service her are big: the Bontrup has a deadweight (a measurement of the fully-laden weight of her cargo, fuel, etc), of nearly 100,000 tonnes.

At this time of year, navigating the Sound of Mull isn't too difficult. On a summer's day, with the waters crowded with ferries, fishing boats, yachts and other pleasure craft, she has a hard time: it's not unusual for her to have to use her horn. To make matters worse, these ships have to navigate the Sound on a fine day when the passage is busy, and when the Sound's infamous sea fog suddenly starts rolling in from the north.

The aggregates carried in the Yeoman ships go all over Europe. AIS, the ships' identification system (link here), states that this particular load is destined for Rostok in Germany.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Creel boat

Taken yesterday, this photo shows the Jacobite laying a string of creels just off the Ormsaigbeg shore. Although the OB painted on her side indicates that her port of registration is Oban, she's based in Tobermory.

As well as lobsters, these boats land crabs and prawns - langoustines or 'Dublin Bay' prawns. They are caught in the creels, or lobster pots, that are visible on deck: a steel frame covered in netting, with one or two entrances which the shellfish have difficulty getting out of. The creels are baited with dead fish and laid in a 'string' with a float at each end, this being anything from an old plastic container to a proper orange float, marked with the registration number of the boat.

The weather yesterday wasn't too bad, but well-found boats like the Jacobite are out in the most fearsome conditions. With a crew of three, their day is one of unremitting hard work in all weathers and often on slippery, bucking decks. Most crews still dislike wearing life jackets as they impede their work, but the quality of wet-weather gear has improved immensely over recent years, many now wearing survival suits which will keep them alive for some time even in these cold waters.

The creel boat's equipment includes radar, in the white dome over the wheel house, GPS, and a net hauler, visible just above and to the left of the for'ard 'OB', which pulls up the heavy creel string which, in the old days, was hauled by hand.

Too few people, when they sit down to a dish of prawns in a restaurant, stop to think how hard-won this delicacy is. Most of the shellfish caught off western Scotland go straight off to London and the continent.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Black Sheep

Walking down to the shop - or, rather, being blown down to the shop - this morning, we noticed this character in the garden of one of Steading Holidays' letting houses. Not content with the rather inferior grass which he was obliged to share with about twenty other sheep in a neighbouring field, he'd managed to break out, feeding instead on lush lawn grass. This house - which happens to be the house we stayed in when we first discovered Kilchoan - is undergoing alterations ready for the new season.

On the way home, with a sharp shower stinging our faces, we spotted another hen harrier, a male this time in his very smart black and off-white plumage, working his way along Ormsaigbeg's lower fields. The female we noticed a few days ago was worth mentioning in the Diary, to have seen what might be her mate is very encouraging: perhaps we'll see them in permanent residence.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

And more Storms

If anything, the weather today has been wilder than yesterday. A gale hammered us all night and by morning had settled into the west. Occasional heavy showers have been accompanied by gusts so fierce they are almost impossible to walk against, whipping the foam off the breaking waves and laying a grey pall across the sea. Evidence of the strength of the wind comes from watching the burns that form waterfalls on Mull opposite us, which only run after heavy rain: the water tumbling down the cliffs doesn't reach the sea, being picked up and thrown upwards in a great spray, back onto the land.

The Sound of Mull has been empty. The only birds that seem to enjoy this sort of weather are the seagulls. One lone cormorant was trying to make his way back to their nesting site in the cliffs to the west of Kilchoan but he struggled to make progress against the onslaught. And we haven't seen a ship out there, other than the morning ferry which, amazingly, managed to get across from Tobermory before battling its way back again. CalMac's website reports that many other west coast ferries have been cancelled.

The village itself tends not to be too badly affected by a westerly as we're relatively sheltered by the hills to the north and west, but conditions will be ferocious out at the lighthouse tonight.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009


It has blown a gale all day today, starting as a southerly, then going round into the west, and we have a similar forecast for tomorrow. It doesn't prevent us going out - we're now equipped with the latest in waterproof, breathable coats and over-trousers - but footwear is a problem. Unless one wears Wellingtons or proper walking boots, neither of which are comfortable for walking any distance on tarmac, anything lighter tends to leak. Shoe manufacturers seem to tailor their wares for the south of England and its light showers.

We've seen some cracking gales in the fourteen years we've lived in the village, winds with power that was elemental, and rainfall that filled the burns with dangerous, swirling floods. The greatest was the storm of January 2005, which coincided with an exceptionally high spring tide. The road to Salen - our only land route out of the village - was cut in six places by the sea. Considering the severity of the storm, there was remarkably little damage - but then, this place is accustomed to such extremes. The big, plastic recycling containers which, at that time, were below the road near The Ferry Stores, were picked up by the waves and washed onto the road, the roof of the church tower was removed and blown into a field, and a caravan was comprehensively demolished at Sanna. At home, we had the pleasure of watching the wind strip the metal from our roof ridge and tear away precious Ballachulish slates, sending them spinning away down the road.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Tobermory Ferry

This is Caledonian MacBrayne's 11am sailing from Tobermory arriving at Kilchoan Pier this morning, with Ben Hiant in the background. The Raasay is one of CalMac's relief vessels, capable of carrying 5 cars, taking the place of the much larger MV Loch Linnhe which can carry 12 cars. Built in 1976 in Glasgow, the Raasay is one of their smallest ships, but she's fine for us at this time of year as the ferry is far from busy. This morning the 8am sailing left Kilchoan with four on board - three schoolchildren who attend Tobermory High School and one person going across to the dentist, and the 11am returned with only the dental patient. In summer it's a different story, with far more daily sailings and, on occasion, so many passengers that some have been left behind in Tobermory.

CalMac provide almost all the ferry services on Scotland's west coast, running 30 vessels serving ports between Arran in the south and the Isle of Lewis in the north. The other Calmac ships we see plying up and down the Sound are the Clansman, one of their newest ships, built in Devon in 1998, and the Lord of the Isles, built in 1989, both of which serve Coll, Tiree, Barra and Lochboisdale on South Uist. More details of CalMac's fleet here.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

The Ferry Stores - 1

The Ferry Stores is the only shop on Western Ardnamurchan. The next nearest shops are at Acharacle, 50 minutes by car, or in Tobermory, a 35-minute ferry ride away. The shop has always prided itself in offering a wide range of goods, as befits an establishment serving such a remote area.

The Ferry Stores is nearly 100 years old, though there was an earlier shop on the site. What is now the house was the original shop - you can see the original entrance between the two near windows on the ground floor. The site occupies part of Croft 67, Ormsaigbeg, held by a Dougald Mackechnie at the beginning of the 20th century. His father may have been called MacEachrainn: the family seemed to use the two surnames interchangeably. Dougald, as well as being a crofter, was a coal merchant with his own boat which he used to bring in coal from Troon. He stored the coal in a ‘coalree’ on the site of what is now the shop. The access road to his croft house, now called Bay View, ran up to the right (east) of the coalree, across land now occupied by the existing shop store room.

Dougald’s sister married Duncan Cameron who was a ferry man. Duncan fell out with Dougald who would not give him land upon which to build so he obtained a plot on the adjoining croft 66, the MacCallum croft, where he built the Ferry House in the 1880s. Duncan was drowned off Mull in 1910, after which the Ferry House passed to his son, Lachlan. Lachlan also took on the ferrying business, taking passengers out to the ships which stopped in the bay and across to places like Tobermory.

On the site of the present Ferry Stores house there was a cottar’s cottage inhabited by Allan Campbell. Allan was called “a’bhuth”, meaning “the shop”, since he operated a small business “out of his front or back door”. Allan must have been related to Lachlan Cameron because, when Allan also drowned, Lachlan inherited the cottage and his business. He demolished the cottar’s cottage, moving Allan’s shop into rooms in the Ferry House while he built the Ferry Stores on the cottage site, completing it in 1912.

Lachlan Cameron built the shop so that, if the business failed, it could be used as a dwelling house. It was not until 1930 that Lachlan bought ten poles, largely occupied by the existing shop building, from the Ardnamurchan Estate.

The Camerons had a shed beside the jetty. The bothy on this land, to the south of the Ferry Stores, now used by the Jetty Committee, was built by the estate, probably in the 1890s. John Mackechnie, brother of Dougald, lived in it at one time, as did others of the Cameron family, even though it occasionally flooded. It was also used by the salmon fishery.

When Dougald Mackechnie died in 1934/5, Croft 67 passed to Lachlan, as did the coal business. Thereafter the croft house, now called Bay View, was not occupied by the family though it was often let to others.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

A Cold Sea

A stiff southerly wind is punching up the Sound today whipping spray off the tops of a short, choppy sea. The water, a deep grey-green, looks as cold as the wind but, being November, there are some months to go before sea temperatures reach their lowest. In the months between July and September, sea temperatures here rise to about 14C and then fall until, by March, they're down to 4C. We shouldn't complain: we owe our relative warmth to the North Atlantic Drift which brings us a steady supply of Caribbean water. The sea around Labrador, Canada, at a more southerly latitude, freezes solid each winter.

The temperature controls marine life. One of the events of the year is the arrival of the mackerel shoals, usually about May, which offer rich fishing, good eating and a store of protein to be put away in the freezers. By November sightings of whales and dolphins are rare but, last winter, we had dolphins in Kilchoan Bay during the coldest weather: perhaps it's another effect of climate change.

Even in summer, this is not a sea to stay in too long. Hypothermia sets in quickly. One August, when the family was visiting from down south, two of them went for a 'marathon' swim of about a mile along the coast. By the time they'd finished they were bitterly cold. Despite this, some hardy souls have been known to take their first swim of the year in April, without benefit of either dry or wet suit.

Friday, 20 November 2009


It's been a busy week in the skies above the village. We've had the usual buzzards, kestrels and sparrow hawks, but we've also been seeing a large number of eagles, both the golden and fish (or white-tailed) varieties, flying high above us. Sadly, they seem camera-shy, heading off over the hill as soon as a lens is pointed at them.

The highlight, however, was the sighting of a hen harrier. They don't appear often, and when we've seen them before they've been at the eastern end of the village, usually over open, Estate land. This one flew the length of Ormsaigbeg. Being a female, she could have been mistaken at first sight for a buzzard, but her brown feathers are set off by a smart white bar across her rump. Hen harriers also have a lazy, zig-zag flight when they're hunting. We've seen males too, though, with off-white feathers and black tips to their wings, they are more likely to be mistaken for seagulls.

By the end of the Second World war, hen harriers were confined to the outer islands of Scotland. They're one of the raptors which have made a remarkable comeback in the last few decades, spreading across much of the Scottish mainland.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

The Great Eucrite

The rugged hills that provide the backdrop to villages like Sanna (pictured here), Achnaha, Portuairk and Kilchoan are part of a series of concentric mountain circles in the centre of this end of the Ardnamurchan peninsula. They are made of a rock called Eucrite, a variety of gabbro. Its molten magma cooled very slowly, deep underground, so it formed a very hard rock. This magma also rose higher through the crust to feed a mighty volcano which erupted some 65 million years ago, spewing out runny lava flows which are still found across large areas of the peninsula. That most of the lava has disappeared, and the Eucrite now lies exposed, shows the huge erosive power of the ice which covered this area much more recently.

The Ardnamurchan volcano was active at the same time as volcanoes in Skye, Rhum, Mull and Arran. All erupted at the time that Greenland was separating from Europe. That they are almost in a straight line was probably because they formed along a line of weakness in the crust, though more fanciful theories include a suggestion that they were the result of an impact by a large meteorite which broke up on entry into the atmosphere, its pieces smashing holes in the crust.

The Ardnamurchan igneous complex is world famous, so one group of visitors to the Kilchoan area are the geologists who come to study it. A large party of students from Glasgow University comes each year, staying at the Sonachan. Lone figures, clutching notebooks and a hammer, are common along the foreshore below Kilchoan and Ormsaigbeg during the summer, students doing the 6-week mapping exercise required for their BSc. We also have our resident geologist, Rob Gill at Achnaha, who runs a small business cutting thin sections of rock for use in microscope studies - his website is well worth a visit, not least for the beauty of the colour effects his slides make under a polarising microscope.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009


A beautiful morning, so we set out to walk along the tops of the cliffs to the west of Fascadale Bay. Fascadale (from the Norse aska, ship, and dahr, dale) lies on the north coast of Ardnamurchan, and its bay must have offered the Vikings who named it a wonderfully sheltered anchorage on that otherwise forbidding coast. Which is also why, during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it became the centre for a thriving salmon netting operation.

The white building on the right of the photo used to be the owner's house; the white building to the left was a bothy. Both have now been extensively refurbished, along with an old croft house on the hill above them, as letting houses for Ardnamurchan Estate. The dark building at the top of the beach below the owner's house was an ice house, in which the salmon were stored before being transported along the peninsula to meet one of the London-bound trains. It says something about the impact of climate change here that all the ice needed was collected during winter from ponds on the flat land beyond the buildings: these days we rarely see a frost.

Sadly, overfishing resulted in a sharp decline in salmon stocks during the second half of the twentieth century. Some netting is still done, just along the coast from Kilchoan, using some of the original Fascadale equipment, but the catches are limited. And it is not only the salmon that have suffered, for the waters to the north seemed strangely deserted. As we enjoyed the extensive views across the Minch to Rhum, Skye, Eigg, Muck and Canna, only one fishing boat was visible; and during the whole of our walk we saw only two cormorants and a few seagulls.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Nurse of the Year 2009

This photograph was taken just before nine, looking across the Sound of Mull to Drimnin, after which we enjoyed a brisk morning, with warm sunshine filtering between clouds which only occasionally grew grey enough to produce a few drops of rain. All that has changed. A strengthening westerly had brought heavy rain by four in the afternoon, with the forecast promising an interesting evening's cliff training for Kilchoan Coastguard.

Yesterday afternoon most of the village gathered in the Community Centre for a celebratory tea party in honour of our Nurse of the Year 2009 - Jessie Colquhoun. As it turned out, more wine was served than tea, along with so much cake that, despite our best efforts, half of it was left on the tables. None of which mattered, as the main event, a speech from Jessie, who had come dressed in the glamorous evening gown she had worn to receive her award, was greeted with huge applause.

Prominent amongst the audience were the members of TOFFS, dressed in their smart blue sweat shirts. TOFFS - The Over Fifties Fitness Society - is run by Jessie on a Monday afternoon, offering exercise designed for our senior citizens. And they did her proud, presenting her with a token of their appreciation for all she does for them.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Croft Houses

Most of the croft houses in Ormsaigbeg were built about half way between the shore and the wall that separated off the common grazing, so they have fine views out across the Sound. The oldest buildings, often called 'black houses', were long and narrow, and contained a single room, one end of which was used by the family, the other by their animals. Rudh Dubh at Portuairk, which can be rented through Steading Holidays, is an example of a black house.

In a typical black house, the walls were built entirely of stone with the gaps filled with peat, the floor was laid with flags, and the roof consisted of a timber frame overlain by turves and thatch, the latter held down with pieces of old fishing net. No gap was left for a chimney, so the soot accumulated - hence the 'black'. If there were any windows they were small and closed with wooden shutters, so the room was always dark.

A look at the gable end of some local croft houses shows how the original cottage had a storey added. This one, Post Beag, has not been renovated and is typical of Ormsaigbeg croft houses. Its walls, which slope gently inwards, are a good two foot thick, and have little in the way of foundations - the don't really need them as they sit on solid rock - it has a Ballachulish slate roof, and is painted white, a 'tradition' that is only about 200 years old. The interior consists of two rooms upstairs and two down, the porch being a relatively recent addition. When it was last permanently occupied, it housed a mother, father and at least five children. It is currently for sale.

When the road was built in the 1940s, it was such a novelty, so exciting, that the crofters asked that it run close in front of each house. Only one asked that it miss his house, the one that Alasdair Connell now occupies.

Saturday, 14 November 2009


We walked along the shore below Ormsaigbeg this morning, keeping along the high-tide mark to see what had been washed up from the Sound in the last couple of days. Most of the flotsam, as always, was plastic - milk cartons, soft-drink bottles and lengths of unusable rope thrown overboard from fishing boats. There's much less of this since the UK government passed laws banning the tipping of rubbish from ships, but there's still too much. Every now and again the village carries out a cleanup of the foreshore, but the trash is back in no time.

We had the beach to ourselves until we noticed a blue figure bent double near the waterline. It was May Angus, one of the crofters, exercising her right to pick whelks on the beach below her croft. Whelks - winkles to the English - are a useful source of income, being over £100 a bag in the run-up to Christmas, but the work is back-breaking, damp and cold, and, with the rocks so slippery, dangerous. Most of the whelks go away in large lorries to the continent, particularly Spain.

The beach below each croft was very important in the old days. As well as shellfish, it provided seaweed to fertilise the fields, and each croft kept a boat at the top of the shingle, which gave them fish from the rich grounds in the Sound throughout the year.

As we walked up from the beach, carrying our finds - a bright yellow plastic box and some firewood - an eagle hovered over Sron Bheag. That's the third we've seen this week. They choose to appear as soon as most of our visitors have gone home.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Top Award for Jessie

Jessie Colquhoun, one of the village's two District Nurses, was honoured on Wednesday evening when, at a ceremony in Edinburgh, she won the "Nurse of the Year" category at the Scottish Health Awards. Jessie has served the Ardnamurchan area for over 33 years, and its residents are thrilled to see her dedication recognised.

A celebration will take place in the Community Centre at about 3pm on Monday.

Thursday, 12 November 2009


The barometer is way down this morning, with the BBC promising a day of rain, but the weather ignores both: a brisk southeasterly is moving layers of flat-bottomed clouds with enough gaps between them to allow a watery sunshine to burnish the hills with gold. As we walked down to the shop three buzzards stopped hovering in the updrafts in their eternal search for mice and flew upwards calling, a sure sign that something was bothering them. It turned out to be another buzzard, high above them.... Except, it wasn't a buzzard but an eagle, soaring across the village in the direction of Ben Hiant, the second we've seen this week.

We've had visitors arrive in the village breathless with the news that they have seen twelve eagles between the Salen turn and Kilchoan. Do we tell them that they were far more likely to have been buzzards, or do we leave them with their excitement and earn the village a reputation for eagle sightings?

Seen from below, it's very difficult to tell the two birds apart, mostly because of the lack of scale. If a seagull starts chasing the bird, it gives the relative size that's needed - three average-sized gulls fit across an eagle's wingspan. Other indicators are that eagles tend to flap less and more slowly, glide longer in straight lines, have slightly wider wings in relation to their length, and more visible pinions.

But we have a further problem, distinguishing between our golden eagles, which nest on the peninsula, and the sea, or white-tailed eagles, which drift across from Mull and Rhum. The latter are much larger and the adults display white feathers across their rump, but these are difficult to spot unless they are flying below you or banking steeply.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Ormsaigbeg & Ormsaigmore

This view of Kilchoan, looking west from the parish church, shows most of the crofting township of Ormsaigbeg. The name Ormsaigbeg is derived from the Norse words ormr, a 'snake' or 'serpent', and vic, a 'bay'. According to Angus Henderson in his neat little book, Ardnamurchan Place Names, the word bheag, which means 'little' in Gallic, was added 'for the sake of expediency' - whatever that may mean.

The township is strung out along a narrow road which ends at the dark headland of Sron Bheag, where sron means 'nose' or 'promontory', and bheag is 'little'. The brackern-covered hill at the back is Druim na Gearr Leacainn, the 'ridge of the hare', behind which rises the much higher mountain of Beinn na Seilg, the 'hill of hunts'. All of which suggests that, at the time these places were named, there was a wealth of wildlife - which there still is, including pine martens and the rare Scottish wildcat.

The huddle of white houses by the shore towards the right of the picture is the beginning of Ormsaigmore, where mhor is Gallic for 'big' - which is quite inappropriate as Ormsaigmore is far smaller than Ormsaigbeg. Most of the buildings are associated with the village shop, The Ferry Stores, an emporium which prides itself in stocking the wide range of goods that the remoteness of this community demands.

Deciphering the meaning of local place names is always a nightmare, particularly for the inexpert, and even more so when many words vary in their spelling. Thus the mhor of Ormsaigmore is mor in the Gallic dictionary. But what they do offer is another window into the history of an ancient area such as this, where Norse and Gaels vied for possession of this precious land.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009


This neat little landing craft, the Harvest Anne, which normally delivers fish-farm products, sailed out of Loch Sunart northwestwards to round Ardnamurchan Point this afternoon. It belongs to Ferguson Transport, whose trucks are often seen on local roads carrying large logs. It's good to see the company developing this much more environmentally-friendly form of freight transport.

It's been a bright day with only a breath of wind to stir the surface of the Sound, but the consequence has been some heavy showers which have appeared out of nowhere, then sat on us while they off-loaded their cargo of vertical rain. There's a positive side to most things: this weather brings with it a wealth of rainbows, one stretching across Glashbheinn, the big hill to the immediate north of the village, for a good half hour at lunch time.

Monday, 9 November 2009


Sanna, on the far northwest coast, is one of the jewels of west Ardnamurchan.

On a summer's day, with its beaches and turquoise sea, one wonders whether God made a mistake when he made Sanna: it was intended for the Caribbean or the Seychelles - all it lacks is a few palm trees - but was put down in the wrong place.

Sanna is a crofting village, but it is best remembered by its many visitors for its empty beaches, long stretches of tawny gold sand which, even on a busy Bank Holiday, always seem to be empty of people. What is so nice is that there isn't one but several beaches scattered round a wide bay which is separated from the white croft houses by the mochair, an area of coarse grass growing across steep-sided dunes formed of shell debris blown in from the beach.

The village facilities include a red telephone box, a post box, a tin church, a car park and, the most recent addition, a water treatment plant which is reputed to have cost £1.5 million, serving a resident population of nine. So it's a lonely place in winter, and it was on a wild winter evening, with the wind gusting over gale force and the rain travelling horizontally, that our local postie was sitting in his van, having arrived a few minutes before the collection time at the post box, when a knock came on his window. The postie wound down the window to see a very bedraggled man standing beside his van. "Help!" the man said.

He had good reason to ask for help. Minutes before, his small fishing boat had been wrecked on the cliffs to the north of Sanna.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

MacIain's Cave

This rugged but beautiful section of Ardnamur- chan's north shore hides a grim secret. A steep scramble down from roughly half way along the track which joins Ockle to Eilagadale leads to a shingle beach from which, as long as the tide isn't high, it is possible to reach MacIain's Cave.

Named after the clan which, for over three hundred years, owned all the lands of Ardnamurchan and was closely related to the MacDonalds, the Lords of the Isles, the cave is the site of a grim find: piles of human bones.

By 1624 the MacIains had lost all their lands and power and, outlawed and harried by their enemies, had taken to piracy, waylaying ships as they passed Ardnamurchan. Their women, children and old people led a miserable existence - and it was a group of these which their enemies, the Campbells, led by footprints the MacIains had left in the snow, cornered in this cave.

The story is that the Campbells collected wood and laid it at the entrance - no more than two small gaps which lead into the large, shingle-floored chamber. Setting fire to it, they stood outside to prevent anyone escaping.

Sitting around the entrance to the cave, listening to the MacIains' screams, the Campbells would have looked out across the Minch towards the Island of Eigg. The MacIains should have learnt from history: a similar massacre was perpetrated in a cave on Eigg in 1577, when 395 MacDonalds were suffocated by a Macleod raiding party.

Friday, 6 November 2009

End of the Season

A beautiful day yesterday ended with this warm sunset over Coll, seen from Ardnamurchan Point. The Lighthouse Trust has closed its facilities for the year as, with the school holidays over, the number of visitors has fallen off. The site is still open, and there's full access to the picnic tables and new gravel walks around the lighthouse, but the tower, cafe and exhibition are closed. By 5.00pm, there was only one other visitor to enjoy the silence and the sunset.

Most local businesses are reporting a good season, helped by the weak Pound Sterling and the overseas advertising that has gone with the Scottish Government's support for The Year of Homecoming. With tourism now one of Kilchoan's most important industries, it's good to hear that the early signs for next year are promising.

The Kilchoan area isn't quite down to its winter population. While most of the caravans are now closed up, several of the holiday houses, the ones with a warm fire to gather round in the evenings, are still open, so our visitors tend to be couples with no or very young children. The only condition to an enjoyable stay is being prepared to venture out, whatever the weather.

The time of year also marks a change of pace for many year-round residents. The summer jobs - grass cutting, cleaning houses, working in the tourist centres such as the Ardnamurchan Visitors Centre and the Lighthouse, and casual jobs in the hotels and guest houses - have come to an end. So, as the weeks take us towards mid-winter, when it will be dark by 4.30, it's a time to relax after a busy summer.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Winter Fishing

A creel boat works the waters of the Sound of Mull off Tobermory Lighthouse.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

St Congan's Church

A fine day today with a brisk westerly, so we took a walk up the hill to St Congan's, the old parish church at Kilchoan. St Congan (or Comhan), an 8th century Irish Abbot, is the patron of those parishes in west Lochaber known collectively as the Rough Bounds. While there is disagreement as to the derivation of 'Kilchoan', it is quite likely that the village was named after St Congan.

The original church on this site dates back to the 12th century, but it was largely lost when it was incorporated into a new building in 1763. St Congan's is now abandoned, the present parish church having been built in 1829, on a site beside the road to the east. The ruin stands on a hill above Meall Mo Creidhe, now a guest house but originally the church manse.

A well-preserved 15th century grave slab is to be found in the churchyard. The upper part shows a harp player with, below it, a hand holding a sword or claymore and, to the right, a cleric wearing a mitre. While some have fallen, many of the headstones are in good condition. The names carved into them offer a record of the families which have formed the backbone of the local community over the centuries - Camerons, Campbells, Hendersons, MacPhails, MacDonalds. In some ways more moving, alongside the headstones of the richer parishioners are headstones of rough-hewn slabs of local slate.

It is a wonderfully peaceful place, a place to wander amongst the graves, reading the inscriptions and thinking about the people who went before, and then for sitting and enjoying the panoramic view south across the Sound of Mull towards Tobermory and Bloody Bay.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Ian Rodger

The village paid its respects to Ian Rodger, who was lost off Ardnamurchan Point last month, in a service held in the parish church this afternoon. As well as his wife, two sons and daughter, the church was packed with friends and relatives from near and far.

Community Council

West Ardnamurchan is a true democracy. If anyone doubts this, they should attend one of the Community Council meetings held at 8.00pm on the first Monday of every month in the Community Centre, at which a dozen or so elected representatives meet to discuss and make decisions upon a wide variety of topics.

These meetings are a refreshing change to the party-based political posturing and wrangling we endure at higher levels in government. The members represent the community as a whole and, since they come from all over the area, the scattered villages of the peninsula. The public - that means anyone - is even allowed to speak. But the most remarkable aspect of these meetings is the cheerful, co-operative fashion in which they take place led, as they are, by two young women, Rosie MacLachlan, WACC's Chairman, and Jac Crosbie, its Secretary. Despite heavy commitments elsewhere, Rosie and Jac seem prepared to give freely of their time to the many meetings, telephone calls and letters to which their posts commit them: Rosie, for example, is a crofter, works on the fish farm, is a member of the Kilchoan Coastguard and Fire Brigade units, and a mother of two small children - amongst other things.

Perhaps the most important part of the Council's work is lobbying on behalf of their remote community, and it is surprising how many battles this small group has won - even though some may take years. A good example at last night's lengthy and busy meeting was a report from the Chairman that the community had received a categorical assurance from the Scottish Ambulance Service that the ambulances which come down the peninsula would "never be without double crew again" - meaning, a driver and a paramedic. This follows several incidents over the last few years when the Strontian ambulance, which takes a minimum of 40 minutes to reach Kilchoan and over an hour to return to the nearest hospital, arrived on scene with only a driver, rendering it impossible to carry a casualty away.

Sunday, 1 November 2009


There are two longstanding traditions in the village at Hollowe'en, one of which, 'guising', we had never come across before. The 'guisers' who arrive at the front door are dressed from head to foot in dark clothing, with a mask to cover their faces. Invited in, they simply stand, silent. The game is to guess who they are - and very difficult it is, even though they may be people we see every day. Their reward is a dram and a bite to eat.

For some of the more adventurous members of the village, practical jokes are the order of the night, usually carried out after the pub has closed. 'For Sale' signs appear outside properties; gates move; messages are sprayed in large letters onto the ends of the big, plastic-covered bales of silage; a rowing boat moves into a garden pond - and, this year, a car is wrapped in cling film. To add to this, the American tradition of Trick-or-Treat has arrived here, but the village is so scattered the children have to be ferried around in their parents' cars.

At least, last night, the night was clear and dry, with an almost full moon.