Sunday, 28 February 2010

Scanning the Ewes

The day of scanning arrived, and having had very hard frosts since before Christmas, which is unusual for us, it rained and turned the area round my sheds to mud! Typical. Five crofters were having their sheep scanned which added up to approximately 400 head - very messy! Donald who has been doing our scanning for many years arrives for breakfast, then on with the business. Each owners' flock is brought seperately into the holding pens, then herded one by one into a raised crate. Donald sits in an old car seat alongside, with his screen, and rolls a scope along the ewe's stomach. It is exactly the same as the procedure for a pregnant woman except not in such comfortable surroundings! The screen shows whether the ewe is carrying 1,2,3 or maybe more or perhaps nothing at all, and the owner markes them accordingly with a coloured spray.

Amazingly, there were a lot of twins this year, even triplets, despite the harsh weather. However we had all stepped up the feeding which probably helped. Hopefully a good return of lambs will pay for that. Approximately one and a half hours later we had finished, and after hosing down the equipment Donald was off to another local venue.

We now hope for a milder period so that we can get fertilizer onto the fields to encourage the grass to grow. Lambing starts for most of us mid-April, although a few start earlier to get their lambs well-grown for the local agricultural shows. All I want is good healthy lambs, and if all goes well I should get 21 lambs from 11 ewes.

One of my ewes is having triplets, although Donald said "there could be quins". I hope he was joking!! Will let you know in May.


Saturday, 27 February 2010

Back of the Ben

The road from Salen to Kilchoan is single-track with passing places. It follows the banks of Loch Sunart for some twelve miles through scenery which is breathtakingly beautiful and changes at every twist and turn of its length. For those who are not in a hurry, it must be one of the world's most scenic routes.

Then, after passing the lovely bay of Camas nan Geall, it leaves the warmer, south-facing shores of Sunart and cuts northwards to round Ben Hiant. From its most northerly point it offers a wonderful view across the Minches to the Inner Hebrides.

However, since the snow invariably arrives from the north or northeast, and since the shadow of the Ben lies across it all day, these few miles are the coldest section. Frost collects here. Snow builds and drifts and packs here. So the back of the Ben is infamous as the nastiest section for those locals returning home in winter weather, and by late Thursday it had turned into an ice-rink.

John MacFaddyen, who drives the Council gritting lorry, had been called away to assist in clearing the A884 Lochaline road. He's done a splendid job this year on our roads, so it was no fault of his that this section wasn't gritted and became so dangerous.

Three vehicles, one a delivery van, the others cars driven by two of the most experienced drivers in the village, left the road. Several other vehicles didn't attempt the worst part and were abandoned. Although there was some damage to vehicles, mercifully, no-one was hurt, and everyone was brought home safely.

By this morning the skies had cleared and the wind had dropped, and, in the afternoon, bright sunshine warmed the village. With March round the corner, perhaps this is the last throw of what has been a harsh winter.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Wind and Snow

A view across Kilchoan Bay to Ben Hiant, in shades of grey and white, gives a good idea of how bleak things are here.

While we haven't had the snow that has paralysed parts of the east of Scotland, it has settled and drifted above the 100m contour. To the south of us, the A884 between Strontian and Lochaline was impassable this morning and walking anywhere is an unpleasant business in a continuing northeaster blowing Force 5 and bitterly cold.

This photograph, taken from the west end of Ormsaigbeg, looks across the township's fields towards Kilchoan, with the bulk of snow-covered Glash Bheinn in the background.

Despite the weather of the last two days, CalMac's little Raasay has been plying between Tobermory and Kilchoan. This is the 11 o'clock sailing from Tobermory arriving at Mingary Pier, but with everyone keeping indoors she didn't have much trade: one man disembarked, and one Kilchoan villager boarded her to go to the dentist. Mingary Castle can be seen in the left background.

We've had enough of this weather.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Flying Slush

It was forecast as snow but it's arrived here in the form of horizontally flying slush, propelled by a bitter northeaster that's averaging Force 4; but, at 12.45 this afternoon, it managed a gust which reached Force 9, severe gale. All morning the slush failed to settle at lower levels, except in odd places, like where it welded itself to the windward side of fence posts. However, in the last hour it's turned to serious snow which is busy forming drifts. Higher, on the hills, it's been snowing and settling all day.

The state of the land is shown in this photo of the croft houses at the east end of Ormsaigbeg, from left to right Bay View, Cala Mara, and Tabar na Biolar. The highland cattle belong to the Sonachan Hotel but are kept in the fields below Grianan croft.

The birds are having a hard time of it. While one buzzard continued to wheel above the fields looking for his lunch, another had given up, sitting on a fence post in a bedraggled state and refusing to move even when our car passed within two feet of him. The small birds struggle on. This great tit somehow managed to cling to a length of bamboo containing peanuts. Each time a strong gust of wind blew him off, he kept coming back.

If the weather's bad in Kilchoan, we feel for people to the east of us, because our proximity to the warm waters of the North Atlantic Drift ensures that we don't normally see much snow. And the forecast is for snow to continue in the east of Scotland for the next 36 hours. Meanwhile, closer to home, the postie is doing his rounds and won't have much fun on the steep hill down into Portuairk, and Gordon MacKenzie, who drives the Kilchoan bus, will, at this moment, be trying to make his way home along the peninsula.

Snow can be pretty, but it isn't much fun.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Crofting at Ockle

Ockle is a tiny village on Ardnamurchan's north shore with a history that stretches back to the Vikings who gave it its name. For generations it has been a crofting village, and it remains so today. The date of this photo is uncertain, but it may be in the 1940s.

So for anyone staying in one of Ockle Holidays' three letting houses, there is a rare opportunity to see modern crofting practices. Not that it will impinge on the peace, for this ancient system of farming remains far from highly mechanised, yet it offers a wonderful glimpse into the past.

The crofter, and the sole permanent inhabitant of Ockle, is Dougie Cameron, one of the partners in the letting business. His main business is sheep, of which there are some 250 on the 1,260 acres of croft land.

Ockle is lovely at any time of year, but one of the best months is September, when the heather is in bloom. The photo below was taken about a mile to the east of Ockle. In the left background lie the islands of Eigg and Rhum, to the right are the hills of Skye.

To add to its beauty, Ockle is a wonderful place for wildlife. On our last visit we watched a small herd of red deer hinds which had come down to within a few hundred yards of the houses. Sea eagles come across from Rhum. And, although it is mid-winter when such sightings are rare, this morning one of Ockle's regular visitors spotted a pod of about twenty bottle-nosed dolphins.

More Vintage Photos of West Ardnamurchan can be seen here.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Unusually Cold Weather

The days are noticeably lengthening. The sun was almost up at 7.30 this morning, rising over the mouth of Loch Sunart, with Ben Hiant to the left, and it was still light yesterday evening after 6.00pm. The air temperature during the night fell to -3C, leaving a thick frost across the ground. We've had so many consecutive nights of frost that the earth is now like rock. For many readers, this will seem perfectly normal for winter, but it isn't for Kilchoan. Dochie Cameron, whose 70th birthday was celebrated in style last weekend up at the Sonachan Hotel, cannot remember a winter like it. Last year we had half-a-dozen ground frosts and only one night with the air temperature below zero.

The days have been crystal clear, and the sun so warm that, by midday, it's possible to sit out and sunbathe. This photo shows the mouth of the Sanna Burn with Eilean Carrach on the horizon and the rough grass of the machair in the foreground.

All progress on the Ardnamurchan Lighthouse wind turbine has come to a halt. When the turbine arrived it was found to be full of water - it had been stored up-side down in Aberdeen. So the tower lies forlornly on its side. By the time they bring out the replacement it'll probably be blowing Force 10.

The Yeoman Bontrup, a bulk carrier, headed down the Sound at 9.00 this morning. The warm, early sun caught the red paint on its superstructure and, beyond, the snow-covered hills of north Mull.

Monday, 22 February 2010


For any astro-physicist who might still be looking for the centre of the universe, look no further, for here it is: Portuairk.

I was told this fundamental fact soon after our arrival in Kilchoan and, as the years have passed, have come to realise that, since there must be a centre to the universe, Portuairk, permanent population 11, richly deserves the title, for it's a lovely little village. It's the most westerly settlement on the British mainland, a couple of miles from Ardnamurchan Point and looking northeast across Sanna Bay to Sanna, from where the above picture was taken: the path in the foreground connects the two villages.

While there is some uncertainty about the derivation of its name - one suggestion being that it is derived from the Norse meaning muddy bay, which it isn't - Portuairk probably comes from port shobhrag, Gaelic, meaning the bay of little primroses, which describes it beautifully.
The picture above shows the village from the hill to the west, and includes every house. In the old days many of these were croft houses, but Portuairk's popularity as a holiday destination and a place to retire has led to the building of a number of new houses. Despite this, there are several active crofts which use the neat fields within the village as well as the extensive common grazing available to the township.

The view above is from the narrow road which leads down into the village. Amongst its many attractions is its beach, which is very safe for children, its enclosed bay, which offers a haven for small boats, and the views it has across the sea to the islands of Muck, Rhum and Canna.

Portuairk's one, small disadvantage is that high hills to its south shield it from the winter sun. But no village, not even the one privileged to be at the centre of our existence, can be totally perfect.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Raised Beaches and Dry Caves

In our search for evidence of early man on West Ardnamurchan, we've been trying to 'see' the landscape as it was when the first small groups arrived some 9,000 years ago. If sea level at that time was 10m higher than it is now, a walk along the north coast near Sanna should reveal shoreline features lying roughly along the 10m contour.

Just to the south of the fort which stands on the headland Rubha an Duin Bhain (grid reference NM450702), we found what we were looking for: a raised beach lying almost exactly on the 10m contour. It's an elongated mound of cobble-sized stones a metre or so high facing out onto what used to be a small, enclosed bay - a typical storm beach.

The above photo is taken standing on the fossil beach. In amongst the coarse grass in the foreground can be seen the cobbles of the storm beach. Beyond is the narrow entrance to the bay - the previous photo was taken from the top of the rocks to the right. The rocky hillocks beyond would have been a small island running parallel to the coast. Sadly, there was no sign of a midden - a man-made rubbish heap of shells - anywhere near.

The other thing we looked for were dry caves which might have offered shelter. This cave fits the bill. It lies at the back of the small beach south of Sanna Point, just above the 10m contour, so it would have been at the back of another enclosed, rocky bay, a perfect place for ancient man to have collected shellfish.

In our many walks around Sanna, we have never found anything that might have been a shell midden. A search like this is always difficult as we really don't know what a midden would look like: they're probably no more than low, grass-covered mounds. We've probably picnicked on one without realising its significance.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Changeable Weather

All week, night temperatures down to -3C have steadily frozen the ground, with ice forming out on the marshes in Kilchoan Bay and thick frost carpeting the ground. The days have alternated between brilliant sunshine and sudden snowshowers, the flakes big and fluffy and serious-looking but not lasting two minutes on the ground.

The village can't remember the last time it had a winter like this: in our 16 years here we haven't seen anything like it. It's certainly having a magical effect as everyone is so much more cheerful than this time a year ago, when we'd suffered from four months of what seemed like perpetual cloud and rain.

The workmen and electricians who have spent the week erecting the two 5kw wind turbines at the back of the Community Centre could hardly have had better weather, but now they're complaining because they need some wind to try them out. The big, 20kw turbine at the Lighthouse is running late: it was supposed to be up and working by Friday, but the tower has only just arrived. To make matters worse, in laying the electric cable, they've cut the existing power supply.

Yesterday evening these magnificent clouds, back-lit by the setting sun, bubbled up over Coll and Tiree. Looking just like summer cumulonimbus anvil storm clouds, the weather underneath them must have been quite interesting.

Friday, 19 February 2010


Every Wednesday I go to a canoe club lunch social in the Southsider pub in Edinburgh, and in the flats opposite there seems to be a war raging between a lady who likes to feed the pigeons, and an older lady next door who shoos them off her windowsill. It’s hilarious to watch, and reminded me of a resident seagull in Ormsaigbeg named Poggy.

Poggy was Bunty Punchard’s seagull. Bunty had such a pristine garden, and a feature of her garden was this very fat seagull who liked to sit on her fence, feeding off the bread crusts she left for him. You always knew it was the same seagull because Poggy is a very fat bird. I used to see him as I walked to and from work at the Ferry Stores.

After the tragic news of Bunty’s sudden and unexpected death, as well as remembering seeing her zoom around in the smart Mercedes she used to drive, and her cheerful visits to the shop, I expected that Poggy would vanish back to the normal seagull feeding grounds but, fortunately for him, May and Jim Angus next door seem to have taken over Bunty’s job, and Poggy – pictured here sitting on the house he now owns – remains a regular feature of Ormsaigbeg.


Wednesday, 17 February 2010


We have two posties in Kilchoan. Gillespie Cameron, above, has been the postie for nearly forty years, and comes from a family of posties: his father, who delivered all over the western end of this peninsula on a bicycle rather than in a smart red van, and his sister May who was, until recently, the relief postie.

Gillespie is an award-winning postie. In 2002, when one of his customers didn't come to the door as he usually did, Gillespie was sufficiently concerned to phone the community nurse, who came immediately and found the man in a state of collapse. Without Gillespie's prompt action he might have died. More details of the award are here - go to the bottom of that page and click on 'here' for more, in PDF, about Gillespie's award.

When May gave up as relief postie the job was taken by Mairi Hunter. Mairi, who runs a bed and breakfast business, details here, also comes from a family with deep roots in the area.

The postie's daily round starts at ten in the morning with collections from all the post boxes in the surrounding area and the post office at The Ferry Stores, the first stop being at Sanna: notice how the Sanna post box is aligned so its back is to the prevailing wind.

By midday the postie is up at the Kilmory turn, where he/she sits until the mail arrives, in another van, from the area sorting office at Acharacle. The mail is then sorted at The Ferry Stores before being delivered. The time the postie finishes - and it can be well into the evening - depends as much on how early or late the Acharacle van comes in as on the volume of mail.

At a time when national postal services face mounting criticism, Kilchoan is fortunate that the dedicated and caring service given by our two posties is in the very best tradition of Royal Mail.

The Tup

As dawn came the clouds were clearing after giving the mountains tops another white dusting, the snow coming down to the 100m contour.

By ten the sun had melted most of what lay on the lower slopes, so we walked west from Ormsaigbeg, around the western flank of Druim na Gearr Leacainn and north towards Dubh Creag, the dark or black crag, with almost vertical views down to the indented coast below.

Our only companions were the Ormsaigbeg sheep scattered across miles of common grazing, all of whom ran away except one: and, when we approached, we realised it was a leary-eyed tup who had no intention of moving aside for us interlopers. We walked round him and he watched our every step. Later, as they say, we returned by a different route.

Far below us, out in the Sound, the Northern Lighthouse Board's Pole Star was stopped by the New Rocks, servicing the green buoy which marks those dangerous skerries. And, as we came closer to home, we looked across to the Community Centre, where the first of the two turbine masts had been assembled ready to be lifted.

Which leads to an error in yesterday's Diary entry, brought to my attention by a reader - for which I am very grateful. The power lines which bring in the village's electricity were completed in 1975, just under 35 years ago. Before that, a few of the village houses had a generator, but most operated without electricity. The power was turned on in the October, to great excitement.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Our Turbines Arrive

There's a chilly northeasterly breeze blowing after a night during which enough snow fell on the hills to powder their tops white, but we've had some spells of bright sunshine to cheer us. This photo shows one of Steading Holidays' letting houses, Oran na Mara, which means Song of the Sea.

This week should see three new wind turbines in action. Here is one arriving from Shetland Wind Power, the truck taking on diesel at the Ferry Stores. The largest will be erected at the Lighthouse, while two smaller machines will go at the back of the Community Centre.

It's good to think that these turbines are being erected with community-sourced money as well as grants, so they are our turbines and will earn much-needed money for the Lighthouse Trust and the Community Centre, both of which are charities.

It's logical that we have our own sources of electricity. At present our power comes miles down the peninsula, along 40-year old lines which suffer badly in windy weather. Perhaps next time the power lines fall we'll be able to draw on our own, local supply.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Beinn na h-Urchrach

Ben Hiant, 528m, dominates the village of Kilchoan. Its Gaelic name, Bheinn Shianta, means charmed or blessed mountain. Beinn na h-Urchrach, the hill of the cast or throw, seen in this picture above the row of white houses in Pier Road, interrupts the slopes of Ben Hiant's northern flank, a long, rocky ridge which ends in a cliff which falls steeply into the waters of the Sound of Mull. It is formed of a hard igneous intrusive rock, a quartz dolerite, which cooled at much the same time as Ardnamurchan's volcano was active.

The views westwards from Beinn na h-Urchrach, back towards the village, are spectacular, showing how Kilchoan Bay is hemmed in on the west side by the heights around Beinn na Seilg (the hill of hunts), seen here with its summit in cloud. Enlarge the photo by clicking on it, and you will find the ancient MacIain stronghold, Mingary Castle, at bottom left, with the Calmac ferry pier beyond it.

The lower slopes of Beinn na h-Urchrach were once inhabited. In the photo above there is clear evidence of strips, the so-called lazy beds used to grow crops, and, amongst the broken stone walls, the remains of what were once small houses.

The hill is named after an axe which was thrown so accurately and hard it killed the Norwegian chief Muchdragan, some time around 1270. It was thrown by one of his vassals, Evun Cleireach, who suspected that Muchdragan's visit was a threat to Evun's beautiful wife. The tale is wonderfully told in Angus Henderson's informative little booklet, "Ardnamurchan Place Names", available at Kilchoan Community Centre.

The land is now part of Ardnamurchan Estate. It's good to see it actively used, with sheep, cattle and some fine stags grazing on the slopes.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Ardnamurchan's First People

Genetic evidence suggests that the first humans to settle in west Scotland came from Ireland. Their culture was Mesolithic - middle Stone Age - and they arrived 9,ooo years ago, moving up the coast in small groups, living in caves, rock shelters or crude camps but never staying long in one place. If anyone came before them, the evidence is lost, destroyed beneath the glaciers that covered Scotland until about 12,000 years ago.

As the ice melted the landscape left behind resembled today's open, treeless tundra, the alternately frozen and boggy home of mammoth, woolley rhinoceros and sabre-toothed tiger. After a brief return of the glaciers, which formed on Rhum, Mull and Skye between 11 and 10,000 years ago, conditions warmed enough for birch, juniper and willow to thrive. Later, perhaps around 8,500 years ago, these trees gave way to hazel, pine and oak which were inhabited by elk, wild cattle, red deer, wolf, bear, lynx and wild boar. Little wonder that the early human explorers stuck to the coastlines, particularly to islands such as Rhum, Canna, Eigg, Oronsay and Ulva, off Mull. But on the Applecross peninsula, some 103 sites have been identified which were inhabited by Mesolithic people.

Sites on Applecross are abundant because, between 1997 and 2004, Historic Scotland funded the Scottish First Settlers project which concentrated its search on eastern Skye and Applecross. When the glaciers melted sea level rose but, with the weight of ice removed, the land bobbed up, so the beaches and cliff lines from that time lie about 10m above present sea level, and it is along this contour that most of the sites occur.

The characteristic sign of a mesolithic site is a shell midden, a pile of discarded seashells, mostly limpets, whelks and periwinkles. Mixed in with these are fish bones, the bones of deer and wild cattle, and some fruits, roots and nuts. Sometimes these stone-aged rubbish dumps lie in front of caves, as at MacArthur's Cave near Oban, at other times they are in the open at the back of a beach. Occasionally they contain man's earliest tools, made from antler or bone, or small flakes of hard stone. Flint, which makes the best tools, is rare in this part of Scotland, so hard, local rocks were used, one of which was a bloodstone from Rhum.

All the evidence suggests that they had boats - how else could they have crossed from Ireland?
Their movement was part of the great migration of modern man out of Africa which started between 100 and 60,000 years ago in east Africa and followed coastlines. few of these pioneer groups reached Scotland, so the population density was perhaps one person for every twenty square miles, yet genetic research into the R1b marker has suggested that 75% of today's Scots can trace their descent back to these first settlers.

As far as I know, no shell middens have been found on West Ardnamurchan, though there are plenty of beaches along the 10m contour. They're sure to be there - we need to start looking.

[Photo: Carraig, or the Cat's Face, seen from near Sanna, with the mountains of Moidart in the distance]

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Boating Weather

With a clear sky last night and the stars exceptionally bright - Canis the Dog Star seeming particularly prominent - we woke to a hard ground frost under a blanket of high stratus clouds. The clouds haven't moved, and nor has the air: we haven't had a breath of wind all day, and it has seemed damp and chilly, the air temperature never above 4C.

Shortly after eight the frigate HMS Sutherland, F81, came slowly down the Sound. Sutherland is a Type 23 frigate of the Duke class, the thirteenth RN ship to bear the name. Off Kilchoan Bay she stopped, lay motionless in the still waters for a few minutes, then turned sharply and slid gently back the way she had come.

We saw her again later from the top of Druim na Gearr Leacainn, as she passed just south of Muck.

Last Thursday HMS Shoreham, M112, a Sandown class minehunter, passed us, moving with rather more intent.

Soon after lunch, the Northern Lighthouse Board's Pole Star came south. She and Pharos, are the two ships responsible for servicing all the NLB's lighthouses, beacons and buoys. We've seen both of them this week. Pole Star is pictured passing the beacon at Ardmore Point.

Not to be outdone, two hardy souls from the village took a couple of turns out in Kilchoan Bay. If it weren't so cold, it would be perfect boating weather.


Friday, 12 February 2010

Secret Beaches

Another beautiful morning, so we set out for Sanna and the Ardnamurchan north shore with the intention of looking for evidence of early man, but were overwhelmed by the lonely beauty of the sandy beaches along that coast. Once we'd left the village, where a small group of workmen were building a new house, we walked for nearly three hours and saw no-one. There was evidence of other life around: at one of the three beaches we visited we came across these tracks where an otter had made his way down to the sea.
This is northernmost of the main beaches at Sanna, where the Sanna Burn reaches the sea. With low water at 11.30am and spring tides a few days away, there was plenty of sand exposed, enough to be able to walk over to Sanna Island.

This beach, looking out towards Sgeir Ghobhlach, is to the northwest of Sanna, a small, enclosed beach which is our favourite if we don't want to walk far from the car park, a safe beach for small children and the perfect size for beach cricket.

But this is our secret beach, one which is only exposed at low tide and the one where we found the otter tracks. It faces north and takes a heavy surf when the waves are up. It's a beach which, in turn, has its secrets, mainly in the form of unexpected quicksands.

Several of the Sanna beaches have sinking sands. There is a story that a local boy was lost in the quicksands many years ago, and the summer before last a visiting family had a nasty fright. The Community Council has taken the matter seriously and plans to erect a warning notice at the car park.

A map of the Sanna area is here.