Monday, 31 May 2010

The Big Pig Enterprise

In the past few weeks Kilchoan has become a hive of new commercial activity. One of the projects now under way is a pig co-operative, run by eight investors each of whom has put up the capital to buy one of these fine saddlebacks.

They came from Edinburgh as piglets and will be ready in September to go to Tobermory to meet a man with a large knife, after which they will be laid to rest in the investors' freezers. Before that happens, however, Hughie MacLachlan and his fellow farmers will have invested in a second batch. The project is so popular that there are already others queuing to join them.

At present the pigs are in the apportionment near the fire station, where they are doing a fine job of clearing the land of bracken. The diet they get from rooting around is supplemented, twice a day, by pig pellets. Pigs are great destroyers of bracken, of which there is far too much in the area, so it is hoped to move them around onto other land which needs their attention.

Sunday, 30 May 2010


The resident population of this end of the Ardnamurchan peninsula is 175. They are divided between ten crofting townships, with a few living in the wilderness between.

Kilchoan in the broad sense contains three townships - parts of all of them are visible in the photo above, taken during the snows of last winter. Kilchoan township has a population of 88, Ormsaigmore 10, and Ormsaigbeg 15. The other townships, spread across some 110 square kilometres of emptiness, are Portuairk with 12, Sanna 10, Achnaha and Kilmory 9 each, Branault 7, Achosnich 4, and Ockle 1.

The fortunes of a township may change quite suddenly. At one time, Sanna - shown in this photo - was down to a single inhabitant, and many feared that it might never recover, that it might become a village of holiday homes - but then a new house was built and a family moved in.

One measurement of the health of a community is the number of children it contains. Counting children who are at school or younger, of the ten townships, six have children: Kilchoan has 21, Ormsaigmore 2, Portuairk 2, Sanna 2, Achosnich 1, and Achnaha 1, the other 5 being spread along the north coast. By the standards of the recent past, when the roll in our Primary School dropped to four, this is healthy. The problem the area faces is attracting our youngsters back after they have gone away to college: in the 15 years we have been here, only one of the young people who went away, and whose parents are still in the community, has returned to live here.

One Kilchoan family has shown what can be done. Of its four children, all are still in the village. Three are married, and between them they have six children, with another on the way. Furthermore, all four children have maintained the family's longstanding crofting tradition.

Saturday, 29 May 2010


Some of you will remember this cheerful couple from the days when they worked in the Ferry Stores and at Kilchoan House Hotel.

They are well, living and working in Edmonton, Canada, and, now, the proud owners of a small house and a large car. They asked to be remembered to all the lovely people in Kichoan who made them so welcome, and who were so kind to them when they finally made the decision that their future would be in Canada rather than here.

They have many happy memories of their time in this village, and there are, of course, moments when they wonder whether they might have done better to stay here and run the shop together.

Seeing them was one of the purposes of our recent journey. In the hope that I might make one of two of the Diary's readers jealous, this is the beach-side house in Jamaica where we stayed for ten days

The beach, of course, isn't a patch on Sanna, but it was a little warmer - 35C at midday - and it only rained, briefly, once.

Friday, 28 May 2010


In places along the coast at this time of year, where the blue sea ends a sea of pink begins: the thrift is in full bloom along the cliffs.

Its little cushions of leaves seem to grow on the most barren, exposed rock, clinging to small cracks within inches of the high-tide mark. It seems impossible that it can find any nutrients, and even less likely that it can survive, year after year, in places which are beaten by the winter gales. Yet, come the early summer, it puts out masses of its little clusters of flowers, and produces enough pollen to make itself popular with insects, particularly bumble bees.

The plant is also known as Sea Pink, Cliff Clover or Ladies' Cushion and, in parts of Scotland and northern England, Heugh Daisy, heugh meaning cliff.

In folklore, it is said that the owner of any garden with thrift in it will never be poor. Perhaps this is why a cushion of thrift in flower was depicted on the obverse of the old threepenny bit.

Many thanks to Smabz Sputzer on Flickr for the image of the threepenny bit.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

The Great Scottish Crow Mystery - 1

I don't know much about crows. I do know that the local hoodies aren't popular because they have some nasty habits - like pecking out the eyes of defenceless new-born lambs - and that some people therefore spend a fair bit of time trying to trap them; and I also know that they're one of the most intelligent of birds, making them quite difficult to catch. So I'm very grateful to Tom Bryson, who lives in Ormsaigbeg, for describing to me what he rightly calls The Great Scottish Crow Mystery.

Hoodies, some people will be pleased to hear, are on the retreat. Back in the 1920s they could be found anywhere north of a line from Dumfries to Dundee, while their all-black carrion crow cousins were found south of it. The two birds are distinct species but they interbreed along this 'hybrid line'. This is unsurprising: the two species come from an ancestor population which was forced south during the last ice age, some taking refuge in Spain, the others in southeast Europe, where they developed separately.

Today, the hybrid line runs much further to the northwest, from the Clyde to the Orkneys - and Tom recently saw a carrion crow in Glencoe. The hoodies' retreat isn't only happening in Scotland. For example, in Denmark the hybrid line used to run along the German border, but now it's also much further to the northwest.

Why are the hoodies in such rapid retreat? Tom has his theories - they'll be in Part 2 of The Great Scottish Crow Mystery.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Remote Waters

As summer comes, the number of big ships moving through the Sound increases. Two unusual vessels passed us during the last few days.

The first was the RSS Discovery - the RSS stands for Royal Research Ship - whose main task is scientific research across the Earth's oceans. Funded by the National Environmental Research Council, she works for the National Oceanographic Centre in Southampton, and is the main platform for British marine research. With a scientific staff of 28, she was named after an earlier Discovery - Robert Falcon Scott's 1901 ship which carried his ill-fated polar expedition.

The second was the Price Albert II, an expeditionary cruise ship operated by SilverSea. She is designed, as the company's blurb puts it, 'specifically for navigating waters in some of the world's most remote destinations'. She has a strengthened hull with a Lloyd's Register ice-class notation 1A, and carries 132 guests.

I wonder why Kilchoan's local waters are suddenly of such interest to ships more accustomed to the world's most wild and remote places, such as the Antarctic?

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

When we arrived back in Kilchoan the weather was warm and the gorse in full bloom. The village, after a cold spell, had had some much-needed rain, so the grazing has come on a treat. Then, on Sunday evening, the wind turned into the north, a dank sea mist crept across the peninsula, and the temperature, in the space of a few minutes, plummeted. We assumed that the fine weather had gone. Monday dawned grey....

....but the wind had moved round to the northeast and, although it has remained cold, we have basked in sunshine ever since.

Having spent part of our holiday in the SE of Jamaica, an area which is probably the driest part of the island, the richness of Kilchoan's green is a pleasure. We're at the stage when the bluebells are in full bloom; within a week they'll be swamped by the bracken.

Although this hasn't been the best, May is always a lovely month here. Not the least of its advantages is that the midges haven't woken from their winter hibernation.

Monday, 24 May 2010

It's Good to be Home

Many thanks to Rachael, Sue, Gael and all the others who have kept the Diary going during the five weeks we have been abroad.

Our journey took us to exciting places - Jamaica, Miami, Bermuda, Lisbon - and included almost a fortnight on a cruise ship, but one of the best moments is always the return home. We came back to Lochaber our favourite way, on the Scotrail sleeper from Euston to Fort William. The views across Rannoch Moor and Loch Treig (pictured below), and then down Spean Gorge, match those of any of the wild mountain places we have ever seen - particularly when you wake to them on a warm early summer morning. Why this wonderful journey isn't packed solid with American tourists can only be blamed on Scotrail's dismal lack of imagination and unwillingness to invest.

But best of all was catching Gordon's bus for the unique experience of that three hour ride from Fort William along the peninsula to Kilchoan. It's a little like travelling in a mobile coffee shop, the conversation constant but gentle, the passing scenery breathtaking.

"Has anything happened while we've been away?" we ask anxiously.

A carefully considered silence follows.

"No' much."


Further consideration, and a general shaking of heads.

"Lambing gone well?"


Well, at least something's happened.

And then there's that wonderful moment when the bus breasts the hill at Ardslignish and Ben Hiant and Camas nan Geall come into view, and we know we are home.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Lochan na Crannaig

Locan na Crannaig lies in a wide, marshy valley to the west of, and close to the Kilchoan to Achosnich road. 'Crannaig' suggests that the lochan was named after a crannog (Gaelic crannag), an island or wooden pier-like structure on which a dwelling was built. The structure of some, like the one in Loch Tay, resembles a Victorian pier, a platform raised on wooden piles built over the water with a walk-way connecting it to the land. In others, the settlement was on a natural or man-made island.

Crannogs date from about 4,500 BC in Ireland, the earliest Scottish dates being around 3,000 BC, during the Neolithic, but they were used for many centuries, through the Iron Age to Mediaeval times, when they were often the homes of important people.

This photograph, taken from the road shortly after it passes Kilchoan's New Cemetery, looks across Lochan na Crannaig to Beinn na h-Imeilte. The 'crannog' is clearly visible on the far side, covered with heather and small bushes.
In the photo below, taken from the west, the 'crannog' can be seen to be connected to the land by a neck of low, marshy ground. In the days when it was used, this may have been dug out to form a ditch. One reason for the building of crannogs was that they offered good defensive sites.

The area to the right on the 'crannog' is covered with bushes. Amongst these are loose blocks of rock which may have formed one or more small dwellings. At the south end of the 'crannog', at the waterline, is an outcrop of solid rock, proving that the feature is natural rather than man-made. To the north of the 'crannog there is another mound with rocks scattered on it.
Whether this site was a crannog isn't proved as no excavations have taken place. But, from the evidence visible on the ground, there's a good chance that it was.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Kilchoan Community Centre

One of Scotland's Millennium halls, built to replace the old village hall which was little more than a corrugated iron shed, the Centre was opened in 1998. The building is unassuming, set into the landscape, but the business success of this charity is reflected in the way it continues to expand. Two 5kw wind turbines were recently added, it has a first-class football pitch, and it will shortly boast a new children's playpark.

The Centre is run by a locally elected committee but employs a full-time manager and a number of seasonal employees and voluntary workers. Good management has meant it has not had to ask for any subsidies since it was started.

As well as being home to numerous clubs and activities, it contains Kilchoan's Medical Centre, where two full-time District Nurses are based, a Tourist Information Office with a shop, a cafe, a fitness area, a games room, access to the internet, showers and toilets.

Its website offers, along with information about local activities, a means of recording wildlife sightings, and a Flickr group, to which photographs of this beautiful area can be uploaded.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Magic May

May is undoubtedly one of the best months in Kilchoan - it often bringing sunshine and heat. Sadly, when you're a student, the May sunshine just provides another excuse to run away from important revision for those ever looming exams and get outside in the sunshine. How can anyone say no to an afternoon at Sanna?

Monday, 17 May 2010

A Walk to the West of Fascadale

It is possible to walk the whole, beautiful north coast from Portuairk to the Singing Sands, but one of our favourite section lies just to the west of Fascadale. From Fascadale - the name is derived from the Norse, aska, ship, and dahl, dale - a path is clearly marked on the OS map leading slightly inland, although a more impressive but rougher route follows the top of the cliffs. This is a wonderful walk from which to spot whales in the Minch, but it is also where we saw our first sea eagle, probably a visitor from Rhum.

When we last walked this way, all of it across Ardnamurchan Estate land, we strayed south, climbing steadily along the flanks of Meall an Fhir-eoin, Eagle Hill. Just off the marked path stands this pile of boulders.

It is very difficult for someone without the expertise to be certain, but their arrangement is strikingly similar to the chambered cairn at the back of Ormsaigmore called Greadal Fhinn. That is supposed to have been the burial site for a Viking chief, so it would not be surprising to find a similar chamber in another place with a Viking name.

A walker on this route would be unlucky to traverse it without spotting wildlife. We saw a large herd of hinds which we were able to approach without disturbing them, and a raven that had been feasting at the bloated carcass of one of the Estate's cattle.

We passed two lochans, Lochan Dubh, the Black Lochan, a shallow, elongate little lake in flat land beside the marked path, but the highlight of our walk was this one, Lochan an Dobhrain, the Otter's Lochan.

In fact, I would describe this enclosed sheet of water as the prettiest lochan on Western Ardnamurchan, in part because of its seclusion in a cup-shaped depression in forbidding hills, but also because of its numerous little islands and bays. The photograph was taken in the late winter, so the place will be even more beautiful come the warm weather and the flowering of the heather.

A map of the route is here.

Friday, 14 May 2010

The Corran Ferry

Although Ardnamurchan is a peninsula, visitors can be forgiven for thinking of it as an island. This happens when they have accessed it from the south, along the A82 from Crianlarich, and therefore cross Loch Linnhe onto the peninsula by ferry at the Corran Narrows. In fact, most people going to and from Fort William tend to use Corran as, even though there is a road route to Fort William to the north, via Lochailort, the Corran route is quicker.

The Corran crossing is serviced by two ferries, the older Maid of Glencoul and the larger and newer Corran, run by Highland Council. Corran does most of the work, particularly in summer when the route is busy, with the Maid moored nearby as a back-up. The crossings are half-hourly, except first thing in the morning and last thing at night. The crossing itself is quick, not more than four minutes, so, when queues build up, the ferry shuttles.

The narrows were formed by the glacier which gouged out the Great Glen and the trough now occupied by Loch Linnhe. At the end of the last ice age, when the glacier was retreating up its valley, its snout - the point where it melted - stopped for a time at Corran. At this point the ice, being lighter than the sea water into which it was flowing, lifted off the bottom, leaving an underwater ridge. There are many other examples of this feature, the other well-known local one being at the Connel Bridge near Oban, where the outgoing tide flows over the ridge to form the Falls of Lara.

In the same way as at Connel, high and low water at spring tides cause the sea to rush through the Corran Narrows. This, when combined with high winds, can cause ferry sailings to be cancelled. It's at such times that we really appreciate the ferry: for anyone coming up the A82, the northern route to Kilchoan, via Lochailort, adds an good hour to the journey.

The ferry timetable is here.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Picture of a Highland Village

This photograph, taken as the March snows melted, shows most of the houses in the village of Kilchoan, population 105. It was taken from the slopes of Tom na Moine (the knoll of the moor), looking southeastwards.

In the foreground are the croft fields of the township of Ormsaigbeg, running in strips from the common grazing at the back, on which we were standing, to the shore. Most crofts have their house almost on the road, with the more fertile fields in front.

The buildings in the middle of the picture are clustered round the village's only shop, The Ferry Stores. To the right of the shop is the public jetty giving boating access to Kilchoan Bay.

The next five crofts past the shop form the township of Ormsaigmore, while all the houses beyond are in Kilchoan township. The only road out of the village, a 45-mile run to Corran ferry, mainly along single-track roads, leaves between the hill to the left and the pine-covered hill on the horizon. A few days before this picture was taken, the road was closed by snow.

The only other access to the village is by ferry from Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. The houses below the mountain to the right, Ben Hiant (the blessed mountain), line the road that leads to the CalMac pier.

The area is shown on this map, the arrow marking where the photographer stood.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Lazy Beds

When our recent snow melted it picked out features which, at other times, are not easily visible. In this picture, showing the slopes to the northwest of Beinn na h-Urchrach (the hill of the cast, or throw), fields of lazy beds criss-cross the land, witness to the high population density that West Ardnamurchan once had.

Known as feannagan in Gaelic, but common in the Hebrides, Highlands and western Ireland, they were formed by digging parallel ditches and piling the soil towards the centre. The ditches helped to drain what might otherwise be cold land and, by drying it, encourage it to warm in the spring sunshine. The practice also served to deepen the soil for planting. The beds were then fertilized with manure from cows and seaweed from the beach.

Potatoes were a crop which suited the climate and this form of cultivation. Typically, potatoes were planted in May, with the first ready in 100 days, though the main crop would take 130. One acre of good cultivation was sufficient to feed a family of six for a year. However, over-dependence on the potato led to the catastrophic famine that followed the arrival of blight in Scotland in 1846. Some 1.7 million people left Scotland between 1846 and 1852.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

The Tobermory Lifeboat

Tobermory's current lifeboat is the Elizabeth Fairlie Ramsey, an all-weather, self-righting boat of the Severn Class, a design introduced in 1995. As far as Ardnamurchan is concerned, she tends to deal with problems along our south coast and as far round as Fascadale on the north coast, beyond which the Mallaig lifeboat can respond more quickly. With a range of 250 nautical miles and a crew of six, she has an impressive top speed of 25 knots.

As with almost all Britain's lifeboats, she is operated by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which was set up in Victorian times when loss of life round Britain's coasts had become a scandal. Despite the fact that it offers such a vital service, the RNLI is a charity, surviving entirely upon gifts from the general public. This doesn't mean that the equipment or training offered to the volunteer crews is anything less than first class: the RNLI is famous for the service it offers, and holds a place of very special affection in the hearts of the British people.

Despite its independence from government, RNLI boats are only launched when requested by a government agency, the Coastguard. So, a lifeboat is called out in the same way as police or ambulance, by dialling 999 and asking for Coastguard.

As with all Severn Class boats, the Tobermory lifeboat is moored against a pier, close to the Tobermory-Kilchoan Ferry terminal, and not, like some lifeboats, launched down a slipway into the water. The station is a relatively new one by RNLI standards, having been opened in 1938. More information, and news about Tobermory lifeboat is here.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Meall Mo Chridh 2

Meall Mo Chridh was built as Kilchoan's Church of Scotland Manse. The old church, St Congan's, can be seen to the right of the house, beyond the large, walled garden and its mature beech trees.

In the the old days the incumbent, like everyone else in the village, was expected to be largely self-sufficient, so the property came with a substantial parcel of grazing land, called the glebe, part of which is pictured above. David and Stella Cash, the present owners, make good use of the land for their sheep and the walled garden for growing a wide range of vegetables and fruit.

Meall Mo Chridh is just visible at bottom left in this photo. Behind it rises the steep slope of Glashbheinn, the grey hill, which, although it is largely common grazing for Kilchoan crofting township, offers miles of walking and spectacular views for the visitor.

Looked at from behind, the house faces across Kilchoan Bay, with its ever-changing salt flats. The bay is a paradise for birds: oyster catcher, curlew, mallard, shelduck, eider, swans, cormorant, shag, merganser, plover, sanderling, greylag goose and, above the bay, gannet, hen harrier and sea eagle, to name but a representative few. The bay is a safe anchorage for yachts, four moorings being available for visitors, and, with its pubic jetty, a wonderful place to mess around in small boats.

And for those guests who are lucky enough to occupy the master bedroom, all this activity is visible from the bath.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Sea Eagles

The Scottish sea eagle, Haliaeetus albicilla, is the fourth-largest eagle in the world, with a wing span of almost 2.5m (8ft). After years of persecution, the original Scottish population followed stocks from northern England and Ireland into extinction at the beginning of the 20th century - the last pair nested on Skye in 1916. Scottish National Heritage and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds began their reintroduction in 1975, the first being freed on the Island of Rhum. Since then the sea eagle has spread to Mull and much of the west coast, with a second reintroduction beginning along the Tay in 2007. There are now some 45 nesting pairs.

It's Gaelic name, Iolair Suil na Greine, means 'eagle with the sunlit eye', a reference to its characteristic yellow eye. They are such magnificent birds that it isn't surprising that sea eagles hold a special place in Celtic folklore. The remains of several were found in a tomb in Orkney, presumably because they held some religious significance. And Shetland fishermen once put the fat of sea eagles onto their hooks because it was believed that, when the erne, as they called it, appeared, fish would rise to the surface and submit to them.

We saw our first sea eagle some 15 years ago, flying along the north coast of Ardnamurchan near Fascadale. We have steadily seen more until they are now as common a sight over Kilchoan as the golden eagle. I have heard them called 'flying barn doors', which describes them perfectly, for they are huge, moving with a stately splendour - until they choose to go elsewhere, when they disappear into the distance at a great rate.

They are difficult to tell apart from golden eagles, particularly when flying high. A good guide is contained here.