Thursday, 31 December 2009

The Coastguard Vehicle

Kilchoan Coastguard is equipped with a Y-registration Toyota Hilux which is garaged in the station near the CalMac pier. It's a bit of a brute compared to a more up-to-date 4-wheel drive, and, being heavy, enjoys a wallow in the mud if it's given half a chance. As an example of its clunkiness, to engage 4-wheel drive involves climbing out and manually turning the front wheel locking hubs. Despite this, the team has had great fun training to drive it off-road.

Another of the van's less helpful habits is to have flat batteries at the worst possible moments: there is nothing more frustrating than arriving at the station on a call-out to find the batteries dead, something which has happened on two occasions in the recent past - this despite our having a battery charger and taking the vehicle out for drives at regular intervals.

So, with a beautiful blue sky this morning we took it for a run up to the Lighthouse. This is called going 'on patrol', an excuse for a pleasant drive around some stunning scenery at HM Government's expense. This morning the roads up to the Lighthouse still had patches of frozen snow across them, and the approach to the lighthouse itself was a solid sheet of ice.

2009 has been one of the busiest years in memory for the local Coastguard, with call-outs the like of which we hope never to see again, and some intensive and successful training behind us on the new cliff rescue equipment. So it's good to see the team ending the year in fine spirits.


Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Winter Weather Continues

Yesterday stayed cloudy all day, with the daytime air temperature never rising above zero, so most of the snow and frost continues to lie across the land. By this morning the temperature had risen to a healthy 3C, but any improvement was negated by the wind, a bitter northeaster gusting over force 4.

This rotten weather, said to be the worst we've seen in Scotland in a generation, has meant a busy Christmas for our road man, John MacFadyen. He's been working throughout the holiday, doing over twelve hours a day, although only eleven of that is actual gritting - the limit allowed by his tachograph. To make his job more difficult, the Strontian loader, which lifts the grit into the back of the trucks which serve most of Ardmanurchan, has broken down, so the Kichoan one has had to go down the road, which means that, every time John has needed to refill his hopper, he's had to drive over thirty miles along that narrow, winding road to Strontian. Despite this, our main access along the peninsula has been kept very clear and he's got along most of the side roads, though some of them, to Sanna and Portuairk, have been icy.

John's is a considerable responsibility as many aspects of ordinary Kilchoan life depend on the roads being clear. For example, we have a wonderful system of carers. Employed by Social Services, they usually visit their charges - mostly our senior citizens - up to four times a day, but with some of the access roads and driveways icy, this hasn't always been possible. And, with Jessie off work with her broken wrist, the District Nurses have been stretched, so a relief nurse has been drafted in, and he has to drive some fifty miles from Fort William.

There's no sign of the weather letting up before the end of Friday at the earliest, and there is some talk of snow coming in over the next 24 hours, so, while others celebrate, it looks as if John will be obliged to work as long hours over hogmanay as he did over Christmas.


Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Stones - 1

When Kilchoan's croft fields were first cleared they were full of stones. The soil, poor as most of it was, had been derived from the boulder-clay rubble brought down by glaciers, the last of which melted about 10,000 years ago, and glaciers, unlike rivers and the sea, don't sort their deposits neatly into clays, sands and boulders.
On some crofts, most of the smaller stones were collected together in piles. The photo above, of Alastair Connell's croft, gives some idea of the huge volume that had to be shifted by hand. But the larger rocks were put to a better use, firstly in building dry stone walls.

This wall, at the front of Mull View, one of Steading Holidays' letting cottages, is typical of our local walls - though, as can be clearly seen, the nearer section has had to be rebuilt. The rocks at the base of the wall, often out of sight below ground, tend to be the largest, with the bulk of the wall built of medium sized blocks, while larger stones are placed along the top. The walls defined croft boundaries, and divided the land so the fields could be put to different uses. The walls had to be at least shoulder high: the average highland sheep has little trouble in jumping anything lower.
Many of these old walls have been allowed to fall, replaced by wooden stobs and galvanised wire fencing. Maintaining walls is time-consuming, heavy, and finger-breaking work so, as the population dwindled, the walls died.

Happily, the considerable skills required to build a dry stone wall have not been lost from the village. The wall above, around one of the new houses in Ormsaigbeg, was built by Martin Ellis - though the largest rocks at its base were shifted using a JCB. Watching Martin work is a pleasure, as dry stone wall building is a true craft, with each block individually chosen and moved into its place with care.


Monday, 28 December 2009

Sea Otters

One of the advantages of very still weather is that a glassy sea hugely increases the chances of seeing a sea otter - and there are more sea otters along the west and north coasts of Scotland than anywhere else in Britain. Our sea otters are the same species as our river otters but they have several major behavioural differences, the most important of which is that they are active during daylight hours. So, with our short winter days, and with their need to eat more in cold weather, there is an increased chance of seeing one at this time of year.

These pictures are of the same otter taken on different days. We see him regularly along the shore below Ormsaigbeg. At a distance, a swimming otter can be quite difficult to distinguish from a small seal or a cormorant, but they have a very characteristic way of diving, often flicking their long, dog-like tail into the air as they go down.

If they catch something small, like a crab, they'll usually eat it out on the water, sometimes lying on their back and holding it in their front paws. The best opportunities to photograph one comes when they catch a larger fish, as they carry it up onto a nearby rock to eat it. They're still very difficult to see as their wet coat is almost exactly the same colour as the seaweed-covered rocks.

Occasionally they leave the water to come inland, often following a stream. We saw one trying to cross the road near Hazelbank about a week ago but he became aware of us and turned back. An otter's eyesight is very poor out of water, but he has an acute sense of hearing, so he probably heard us rather than saw us.

We've seen several dead otters along the shore. Some may have died of disease or old age, but they have a bad time with dogs, and there has been an ongoing problem with the wild mink population, which are direct competitors and very aggressive. We've been seeing fewer mink lately: we look forward to the day when there are none on Ardnamurchan.

Otters are a pleasure to watch, particularly if there are two or more together, when they are wonderfully playful. We once saw a whole family, with three pups, playing in the pond below the Ferry Stores.

There's a link here to a Scottish Natural Heritage site, with a PDF file which gives plenty of information about the Scottish otter, and a fine YouTube clip here of an otter below the Ormsaigbeg campsite.


Sunday, 27 December 2009

A Photographer's Paradise

With its snow, frost, and bright afternoon sunshine, Kilchoan has become a photographer's paradise.

The cold has continued for so many days now that Loch Mudle, to the east of Ben Hiant, has frozen over, its surface sparkling under a layer of rime. The Loch is on Estate land and is reputed to hold some fine trout, but the only way of catching anything today would have been eskimo-style, through a small hole drilled through the ice

While some of last week's snow has melted from the lower slopes near the sea, the tops are still thick with it. This view was taken today looking almost east from Ardslignish, up Loch Sunart in the general direction of Strontian. There's no sign of any of the sea lochs freezing - yet.

This view looks north from the Kilmory cross roads, down the valley towards the village of Achateny and the island of Eigg, which has largely lost its snow. In the distance stand the snow-capped mountains of Rhum.

Braehouse Cottage, one of the loneliest of the Ardnamurchan Estate's letting cottages, lies in shadow as the temperatures drop. Rhum is in the distance. The road out of Kilchoan was clear this afternoon after some intensive work by the gritting lorries, but it's certain to freeze again tonight.


Saturday, 26 December 2009

Boxing Day

The spell of cold weather continues. This photo shows Cruachan, one of the croft houses in Ormsaigbeg, with frost thick in the fields.

Night-time temperatures have been below zero for over a week, with an air temperature minimum of -3C. This may not sound much to people living in places like Canada, the USA and northern Europe, but such prolonged cold is very unusual here. Inland parts of Lochaber, the Highland District in which Kilchoan is situated, have been much colder, with Tulloch, on the Fort William - Glasgow railway line, registering -16C one night. The frosts here have formed centimetre-long crystals on long grass which is constantly in shadow, and sections of the road have remained white for days.

The cold has brought its problems. A number of pipes have burst, with the result that a man from the Water Board was in Kilchoan on Christmas Day turning water off to some of the unoccupied houses and caravans where there had been bursts. So much water had been lost that the reservoir up on the hill below Glashbheinn was nearly empty. It has been very treacherous underfoot: one casualty has been our much-respected and valued District Nurse, Jessie Colquhoun, who slipped over and broke her wrist.

But, as with everything in life, there are advantages amongst the disadvantages. We've had some lovely sunrises - not least the one on Christmas morning, pictured yesterday - and, when the low winter sun has shone across snow and ice, the landscape has been beautiful

This cold weather has brought eagles over us. We had a fine sighting on Christmas morning, but these photos were taken today of a bird wheeling over Ormsaigbeg, probably a golden eagle. The best sightings of eagles often seem to happen in January. Perhaps they are foraging further afield during the depths of winter.


Friday, 25 December 2009

Christmas Day

A beautiful morning here, with a glorious sunrise to herald the day. Not a boat to be seen on the Sound, snow still on the hills and in the shadowed parts of the land, and another frost last night.
Meanwhile, Ben Talla decided to become a volcano and to celebrate the occasion with a small eruption.

A very happy Christmas to all our readers - and thank you for your support of 'A Kilchoan Diary'.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

School Mornings

Photo courtesy Ben McKeown

I was the last Kilchoan pupil to go to Lochaber High School in Fort William. Before Kilchoan pupils went to Lochaber, they boarded for half a term at a time in Oban, so I considered myself lucky that I was a weekly boarder, only away from early Monday morning until late Friday afternoon.

Winter Mondays were often difficult when I was a resident of Camaghael Hostel. I had to wake up at 5.45am in order to start my two and a half hour school run, by car to Salen then service bus to Lochaber High School. Waking up during the summer wasn’t so difficult as the sun rose early, but the grumps my parents had to endure when I was roused on a pitch black, rainy and windy winter’s morning with a full day’s school ahead must have made a dismal start to their week.

Yet these mornings were a love-hate relationship. Sue Cameron, who had been driving the school run to Salen for years, was always good company, and there were many exciting wildlife sightings over the years: roe deer, foxes, sea eagles, wild cats and pine martens to name some of the best.

To this day when I have to get up before sunrise, I still get the groggy feeling I remember so well from those Monday mornings. However, it was always nice when Sue and I drove out through the village as Christmas approached, with cheerful lights of various colours blinking outside peoples’ houses. That never failed to lift me from my Monday morning blues.


Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Wind Turbines

There could hardly be a more appropriate place for wind turbines than Ardnamurchan, so it's not surprising that they're springing up along the peninsula. There are machines of around 5Kw already installed at Ardslignish, Glenborrodale, Resipole and Acharacle School, but at this, the most westerly and windiest end, we only have small machines at Achnaha, Branault and Swordle. That's about to change, with two 5Kw turbines at Kilchoan Community Centre and a big, 20Kw installation at Ardnamurchan Lighthouse.

The foundations being installed behind the Community Centre

Work has already begun on both sites, with the preparation of the foundations. At the Community Centre, the bolts to which the towers will be fixed have been set in concrete, while at the Lighthouse the pins have been drilled into solid rock. The contracts are due to be completed at both sites within three months.

In the past, the prospect of large wind farms covering large areas of our hills has been badly received by local people. These two projects, by contrast, seem to have attracted general support.

The machines being installed are all built by Westwind. They are Australian designed, and built in County Antrim in Northern Ireland. All this is part of Scotland's drive towards green energy. Both projects are supported by grants, through Lochaber LEADER and Community Energy Scotlan

It's good to feel that, whereas high winds in the past have sometimes cut the electricity supply - which comes all the way down the peninsula on overhead wires - in future they will be making energy for us.

Watch a Westwind 20Kw being installed here.

Winter Morning

The 0645 ferry from Oban to Coll and Tiree cuts a cold sea as it passes the snowy hills of Mull. This is one of Caledonian MacBrayne's newest boats, the Clansman. The journey takes just under three hours to Coll.

One of the features the Clansman passes on Mull's north shore is Glengorm Castle, seen here against the backdrop of the snow-covered hills whose summit is Carn Mor. Built in 1860, Glengorm offers self-catering holidays, B&B, and an organic farm shop. When its builder, James Forsyth, cleared land for the 5,000 acre estate, he burned his tenants' cottages. One of them put a curse on him, that he would never live to sleep in the completed castle: he didn't, dying in a riding accident shortly afterwards. More details here.

Above Glengorm Castle stands Meall an Inbhire, topped by three communications masts, framed here by a rowan tree bent by the southwesterly gales.


Monday, 21 December 2009

Emergency Services

Kilchoan's emergency services include Fire & Rescue, HM Coastguard and District Nurses, all based in Kilchoan, Northern Constabulary and the Scottish Ambulance Service, based in Strontian, and the Doctors in Acharacle. Co-operation between these services has reached a very high level, supported by a number of joint initiatives and exercises. These have included a table-top disaster management exercise led by the police, a serious road crash exercise led by the Fire Brigade, and visits by the RNLI's Tobermory lifeboat and the Stornoway-based Coastguard helicopter organised by the Coastguard.

The photo above shows the teams during this summer's joint exercise with Tobermory Lifeboat. The UK lifeboat service is not run by the Coastguard but by the Royal National Lifeboat Institute, a charity which largely employs volunteers to man its boats. The lifeboat can be called out by a member of the public by dialling 999 and asking for 'Coastguard'.

While the British are justifiably proud of their lifeboat charity - as can be seen by the millions of pounds which are collected to support it every year - people living in coastal areas like West Ardnamurchan have a particular affection for the work of the service since they frequently see it in action.

Ardnamurchan is served by two lifeboats, one stationed in Mallaig, which we see most often operating along the north coast, and the Tobermory boat shown in this picture. Both stations are equipped with modern, self-righting Severn class boats. Link to Tobermory RNLI station here.

Many thanks to Tom Jackson at West Scotland Marine, link here, for the photo. WSM offers a wide range of Boat Charter and other services to both locals and visitors.


Sunday, 20 December 2009


We set off in bright sunshine this morning to walk the length of the village, from Ormsaigbeg in the west through Ormsaigmor to Kilchoan, and then along Pier Road to the CalMac pier. During the night the village had had wintry flurries but by 8am much of the lying snow was beginning to melt - which is just as well as John MacFaddyen, who had been out yesterday clearing the roads, reported sheets of black ice on the road around Camas Fearna.

What remained of the snow and sleet formed a perfect surface on which to study the tracks that covered the road. The most prolific tracks up the Ormsaigbeg end were those of rabbits, but between the campsite above Bogha Caol Ard and the shop we followed two sets of widely spaced, single prints - shown in the photo crossing those of a rabbit - almost certainly a pine marten. One has been seen recently in the shop, and, judging from the tracks, it's the same beast which has been eating food from our bird table.

As we approached the pier the steady westerly brought another sleet shower, blotting out Ben Hiant but outlining Mingary castle. All the indications are that this weather is to continue into tomorrow, something which will worry the staff who care for our older citizens, some of whom couldn't be reached this morning because of the state of the roads.

We might be in for something we haven't seen in years - a white Christmas.


Saturday, 19 December 2009


Kayaking has become a huge part of my life, and has opened many doors, including making new friends and adventuring in the wilds of Scotland. The flame was first lit in Kilchoan, and it encouraged me back home at the weekends when I boarded weekly at Lochaber High School. From exploring west along the coast from Ormsaigbeg, awed by the towering cliffs and views of the Atlantic horizon, to short but exhilarating trips into Kilchoan Bay when the sea turned choppy, to competing at Ardnamurchan Regatta Day, paddling was quickly becoming my chosen sport.

So after about six years of sea kayaking with my parents, I decided to take my hobby further by joining Edinburgh University Canoe Club in my second year. EUCC introduced me to some of my best friends, and to the art of whitewater kayaking. Scotland boasts some amazing whitewater – perhaps there are some little rivers in Ardnamurchan just waiting to be discovered by keen paddlers.

I have discovered a whole side to Scotland I had never seen before. Glen Etive was always just a little road leading off from Glencoe, but now the word “Etive” brings to mind possibly the most exciting, fun river Scotland has to offer.

Despite my introduction to a whole new side of kayaking, I will never forget where my love was born. Sea kayaking in Kilchoan will always remain one of my favourite things to do when I come home.

Thanks to Matthew Lowe for the middle photo.


Friday, 18 December 2009

First Snow of Winter

There were moments yesterday when Kilchoan Bay was filled with sunshine, the bracken glowing like old gold. Last night we had a hard frost, and by ten this morning it had begun to snow.

Western Ardnamurchan doesn't see much snow. In recent years, Kilchoan, at the end of twenty miles of narrow, winding, single-track road, has been cut off for a couple of days, while Portuairk, with the steep hill down into the village, has been cut off more frequently.

When we left Essex to come up here we brought sheepskin coats and friends gave us presents of Alpine gloves. "You're going up to Scotland," they said. "It'll be bitter in winter." We've never worn the gloves, and the moths that live in the sheepskin have only seen the light of day once.

Yet today, while Kilchoan has occasional flurries of damp snow which hardly settles, Essex is in the grip of a blizzard, with up to 20cm of snow forecast. Power lines are down, the posties have been sent home from work, and there is chaos reported on the roads.


Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Duncan (Dochie) MacGillivray

Duncan's funeral took place this afternoon. So many friends and family attended from far and near that the church overflowed.

There are several 'Comments' in Dochie's memory on the Diary's post dated Sunday 6th December (Scroll down to the bottom of this page and select 'Older Posts').

Winter sunrise over The Sound of Mull, with Ben Talla in the distance

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The Ferry Stores - 3

The Camerons – Lachlan, John Donald and Bella, all of whom lived in the Ferry House next door to the shop – ran The Ferry Stores from the time it was built in 1912 until soon after Lachlan died in 1949. In 1950 John Donald sold the shop to the Stewarts, who also worked the coalree and the shed which is now the store room. They, with their four children, were the first to live over the shop. It wasn’t an easy life; for example, water had to be brought in each day from a well in front of the Ferry House. Two of the Stewarts’ daughters, Catriona MacMillan and Fiona MacPhail, still live in the village. In 1958 the Stewarts sold the business to the Warners, who only kept it for 18 months before selling it to Margaret and Fred Burgess.

In 1971 John Donald sold Fred Burgess the land to the north of the road which included the coalree and shed. Very soon after acquiring the land, the Burgesses built the existing shop, a prefabricated ‘portal’ construction, on the site of the coalree. At the same time they bought land to the south which included the old petrol station and additional land upon which they erected a wooden structure, called the Wool Shop, from which they sold Hawick woolens and souvenir items. They also improved the house, converting the big room that had been the old shop into a sitting room, and adding a single-storey extension to the eastern end.

When John Donald died all his interests passed to his sister, Mary, who had married Neil MacDonald. Their son, Rev. Ian MacDonald, still owns the Ferry House and is a frequent visitor to the village.

The shopkeepers after the Burgesses were the Fennas and the Moffats. The Moffats built the existing gas compound. After Gill and Jon Haylett bought the shop in 1996 the old petrol station was condemned by Highland Council’s Protective Services Department as it was suspected that one of the underground petrol tanks was leaking. The wooden Wool Shop having already been sold, a new petrol station and office was built on the site.

In early 2006 the Hayletts sold the shop to the present owners, Suzanna and Jonathan Ball.


Monday, 14 December 2009

Dochie (Duncan) MacGillivray

Duncan's funeral will take place at 1pm on Wednesday, in the Parish Church.

The Common Shag

Each morning, a flock of forty to fifty of these diving birds fly from their roosts in the high cliffs beyond Sron Bheag eastwards along the front of Ormsaigbeg heading for their fishing grounds around Kilchoan Bay. Sometimes the whole flock lands and spends time fishing together, more usually it breaks up into groups of four or five.

When they're fishing they motor around on the surface with their heads, for much of the time, under water. As soon as they see their prey they make a small leap into the air as they dive. But a great deal of time is spent perching on rocks preening and watching the world go by.

By evening they're making their way home, often singly. For such heavy birds, takeoff is long and splashy, but once airborne they have a remarkable grace, flying fast and low, inches above the sea's surface. If they're heading into the wind, which is common since they're travelling west, or if the sea is rough, their journey can become a battle.

The ones around Kilchoan are less likely to be cormorants than Common (or European) Shags, though the two are difficult to tell apart. Shags are a species which seems to be doing well despite declining fish stocks.


Sunday, 13 December 2009

Frost and Shooting Stars

A clear sky last night brought a vivid sunset - this view looks west along Ormsaigbeg to the shoulder of Maol Buidhe and the croft house called Coilum - followed by an exciting display from the Geminids: by ten o'clock, the sky was split by a shooting star every two minutes, all behaving very correctly by radiating out from the constellation Gemini.

As can be seen from this shot of the road by Lagnalion, it must have stayed clear all night as, by early morning, Ormsaigbeg had a hard ground frost, though the air temperature at 7 this morning was still hovering just above zero. The frost was much thicker in Kilchoan, and the radio reported -8 degrees Celsius inland. We are fortunate to be kept warm by the North Atlantic Drift which brings tropical water up from the Caribbean.

As the day developed we had hardly a breath of wind, the Sound of Mull like a sheet of glass reflecting a watery sun - ideal conditions for spotting sea otters. We saw two, one along the beach beyond Mingary castle, but he must have seen us as he dived and disappeared, and another swimming along the shore below Ormsaigbeg.


Saturday, 12 December 2009

The Geminids

We have beautiful weather at the moment, with spectacular sunrises and sunsets but not, as yet, a hard frost at night. That the sky is so clear is good news as the night of 13th/14th December sees the peak of the Geminid meteor shower, potentially one of the most spectacular astronomical events of the year.

It's called the 'Geminids' because the shooting stars radiate out from the constellation Gemini, the Twins, Castor and Pollux. To find Gemini, locate the red giant star Betelgeuse in Orion and move to the east: Castor and Pollux are two bright stars one almost above the other. If they can't be found, it doesn't matter too much as, in a good event, the shooting stars fly all over the place.

There's a website with more detailed information here. Many thanks to Navicore on Flickr for allowing use of the photo through Creative Commons.


Friday, 11 December 2009

Creag an Airgid

The road between Kilchoan and Sanna crosses a desert. When we walked it on Sunday morning we saw no humans, no mammals, no insects, just a small partridge, a stonechat and a chaffinch. A mile short of the village of Achnaha lies a bleak stretch of moorland surrounded by forbidding hills. By the side of the road stands a rock, almost a cube in shape, on top of which stones have been placed.

When our youngest daughter was small we used to stop by this rock, even when we were in the car, so she could add another stone: we told her that it brought good luck, like placing a stone on a cairn at the summit of a hill. We now know that this place is called Creag an Airgid and that it was the site of a bitter battle between, on the one hand, the MacIains, the Lairds of Ardnamurchan, and, on the other, the MacDonalds of Donnyveg and the MacLeods of Lewis and Raasay.

The year was 1518, shortly after the disastrous battle of Flodden when the Scots army was destroyed by the English, and Scotland was in turmoil. Invasions by the MacDonalds had laid Ardnamurchan waste. But in this battle Iain MacIain, chief of Clan MacIain, with his two oldest sons, was killed. It was a further step towards the ultimate destruction of the MacIain clan.

Creag an Airgid is a lonely, eerie place. Perhaps someone can tell me whether there is a connection between the rock with its pile of stones and the battle that took place there five hundred years ago.


Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Sound of Mull

Tobermory Lighthouse at left, Ben Talla sticking its head out above the cloud.

We look out on it every day, so we know how beautiful it is, in all its moods; and we appreciate its value, not least as a source of income to those in the village who, sometimes in appalling weather, go out on it to catch prawns and lobsters and crabs. So when, on Tuesday evening, two men from the Scottish Sustainable Marine Environment Initiative came to the Community Centre to introduce their "Sound of Mull Draft Marine Spatial Plan Consultative Document", a number of villagers went along to find out what it was about.

It's a great document - if you can wade through the hundreds of pages and dense English - for it is an incredibly thorough survey of the marine environment, roughly in the area from Ardmore Point to Duart. In essence, they find the marine habitat remarkably healthy, despite the loss of its white fish and herring to earlier over-fishing.

They look at all the Sound's uses, and note that almost all do little damage and are of much value both to the local economy and to the many visitors who come here. Preparations for marine pollution seem to be better than when the Lys Foss went aground in 2001. There is need for better access in places. And they do note that, particularly in bad weather, boats such as clam dredgers come in and wreak havoc across the sea floor.

Their recommendations are sensible and well reasoned. Sadly, they do not confront the issue of large-scale damage to marine stocks. The project has some time to run before it reports fully. We hope they will have the courage to confront the remaining problems and come up with some sensible recommendations upon which the Scottish Government can act.


Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Tupping in Kilchoan

This is the start of the Crofting year for those of us who keep sheep. In these parts, the tups (rams) are put with the ewes in mid-November. Yes, it's later than most, but we don't have the lush fields that the big farms in more central places have, therefore do not want our lambing to start until mid-April when, hopefully, the grass is growing.

The tups are usually with the ewes for about six weeks, then, job done, they are removed and that is the end of their fun until next November.

My tup - shown in the photo - is home bred. I used him last year as a lamb. He was clipped in the summer so is now a 'one shear'. Last year as a lamb he fathered seven sets of twins and two singles from the nine ewes he served. This year he has twelve to serve, so I am hoping for another good result. Sadly, I cannot use him next year as he would be serving his own offspring who will be ready to join the flock, so he will have to be sold.

In general, one tup can serve 40 ewes. Often a harness with a colour block is put on the tups. The colour is changed every week and this shows which order the ewes are going to lamb - particularly useful for those of us who 'house' our ewes at lambing time, as there is little point in filling up our sheds with late-lambers.

In mid-February many of us scan our ewes to see what they are carrying - or not, as sometimes happens. It enables us to adjust the feeding accordingly - but that's another story.


Lightning Strikes Twice....

The village was rocked by two tremendous lightning strikes, one late Sunday afternoon, the other shortly after midnight. Between them they took out numerous BT lines and destroyed computers, cordless phones and Sky digiboxes. No-one seems to know what the lightning hit but it's a blessing it wasn't anywhere people live. BT was slow to answer the calls for help yesterday but there are several BT vans in the village today.

How the lightning affected individual houses seems to defy logic. Some people experienced no damage, while others lost electronic equipment but not their phone line, and others still lost phone and equipment. The general opinion in the village is that it was the most terrifying strike we've ever had.

There seems to be a trend here away from electrical storms in summer to these localised, random, winter strikes which arrive without warning. On Sunday night, with a steady gale blowing, the lightning, often a single bolt, was followed by a fierce squall bringing heavy rain and hail.

This super photo, taken by David Haylett some years ago, caught both a lightning strike over Mull and the flash of Ardmore Point beacon. To see more of his pictures, follow this link.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Dochie (Duncan) MacGillivray

Deepest, deepest sympathies to Mary and her family on their tragic loss.

Saturday, 5 December 2009


All around the edges of West Ard- namurchan are rocks which were formed long before the area's great volcanoes became active. Some of these were laid down as muds and oozes in a warm, shallow sea during the Jurassic, the time when dinosaurs ruled the land. This sea teemed with life, and the hard remains of some of these creatures are still visible in the rocks that now form our indented coastline.

The fossil shown here is well worth some attention. The set of house keys to its left gives a sense of scale, but the shell, when complete, was considerably bigger, over 50cm (20") across. Its a nautilus, an animal related to the cuttlefish and squids, but a particularly interesting fossil as it's a rare example of a group which, instead of evolving like most, has hardly changed in design over hundreds of millions of years.

A careful study of the fossil shows that it has almost identical features to this cut-away shell of a nautilus from the Pacific, photo taken by Chris_73 - except it is much bigger. The internal divisions of the shell, the septa, are clearly visible in the fossil, as is the long tube that enabled it to fill some of the chambers with water, allowing it to sink into the depths for safety during the day. In other words, it looks very much as if the ecological niche which the nautilus occupies has been so successful it has never felt the need to evolve.

This photo, taken in the Berlin Zoo by Fantagu, shows a living nautilus with it's highly efficient eyes, necessary for hunting small fish at night, and squid-like tentacles. Below the tentacles it has a tube like the squids, which enables it to squirt water as a means of propulsion.

Many visitors, geologists in particular, come to West Ardnamurchan to study one of Britain's last active volcanoes, but few realise that the local rocks hide these magnificent nautiluses - and many other fossils.

Friday, 4 December 2009


This boat, the Wanderer II, was fishing in Kilchoan Bay and off the Ormsaigbeg shore yesterday morning. Her registration, CN142, means she's registered in Campbeltown, though Google reveals that she used to be Oban-based, that she was built in 1972 in Girvan, and that she's fitted for both prawn and clam fishing - a clam being a scallop. There's a good picture of her here.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Road Maintenance

John MacFadyen maintains the roads at this end of the Ardnamurchan peninsula. With only one narrow road connecting us to the outside world, his is a vital job. This morning, after recent heavy rain, he was clearing ditches and drains, and filling potholes. When the weather deteriorates as the winter sets in, he'll be out at night with the snow plough and grit spreader.

The road as far as Salen, some 20 miles away, is single track. There are passing places every hundred metres or so but, when people meet on the road, many drive onto the verges to pass rather than reverse to a passing place. The result, John says, is that the verges deteriorate, allowing pools of water to form which very quickly undermine and destroy the tarmac. And with so much standing water on the road surface, potholes form quickly which, unless filled, grow to become dangerous.

The road is being improved every year. With grants from the European Development Fund, some of the worst and most dangerous sections are being straightened and widened. There were places where the road threatened to slide down the hill: these have now been dealt with. But European grants do not help with the general, day-to-day maintenance. A few years ago Highland Council employed two men to care for our roads. Now John, with support from Strontian, does the job alone.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

A View of Ormsaigbeg

Click on photo for FULL VIEW

This photo, taken on Tuesday while the fine spell lasted, looks westwards from the jetty below the Shop. The houses of Ormsaigbeg are scattered along the hillside to the right, ending against the hill called Maol Buidhe, beyond which stand the high cliffs of Sron Bheag. In the left distance is the Sound of Mull and the low-lying northern end of Mull.

The warm colours of the hillside come from the stands of bracken which have overtaken croft land that has fallen from use. It's said that bracken is a fussy plant which prefers the deeper, richer soils.

The size of the crofts decreases towards Maol Buidhe. As people were moved from the outlying villages which were cleared for sheep, they came to Ormsaigbeg. Those who came late were forced to settle towards the end - the house of the last croft, Coilum, is just visible on the skyline. Even though the riches of the sea were available, it must have been a terrible struggle to support a family on so little land.