Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Heather Crisis

August and September are the times of year when Scotland's wild uplands turn purple. In spells of brilliant sunshine between the rainbows and showers, the braes glow with the annual heather flowering. It's one of the glories of Scotland, and it occurs in few other places - other upland areas of the UK, Ireland and Norway - but nowhere is it as widespread.

The success of Scotland's main heather varieties, Calluna vulgaris and Erica cinerea (above), is the result of the clearing of the woodland that is the natural cover by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, starting some 4,000 years ago. It has been maintained by burning and by grazing; areas where this sort of land management has ceased have reverted to forest. It has been estimated that 20 to 24% of our moorland heather has been lost between the 1940s and 1970s, largely due to re-forestation, and that this rate of loss has continued. The Heather Trust reckons the rate in Scotland is now about 0.5% each year.

Heather has also been lost to bracken, now widespread round here. A walk in the hills of Ardnamurchan quickly provides evidence of how bracken shades out heather growth, and some personal land management has proved that, the minute the bracken is cut back, the heather returns.

But there is something else: heather appears to be dying faster than it is regenerating. This picture shows heather plants on the hills behind Ormsaigmore. This particular stand of heather measured approximately 20m by 10m, there was no bracken or other obvious reason, yet approximately a fifth of the plants were dead. And this is not the result of a dry start to this year - we've been noticing the whitening bones of dead heather plants for years.

Heather has little practical use - other than as food for grouse for rich men to shoot - but it is beautiful, and, as such, it stands as a emblem of the wild hills of this country.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Old Road to Kilchoan

The original approach by land into Kilchoan didn't follow the great loop to the north that the present road takes. After Camas nan Geall it followed the present road for about a mile, then broke away northwards just after the bridge at NM556626 to skirt the eastern flank of 'The Basin', a bowl-shaped area of open land. It then re-crossed the existing road at the 6 mile post, before climbing steeply due westwards along the dark, northern flank of Beinn na h-Urchrach. Today its route is scarcely visible as it clings to the steep slope, though it can just be seen to the left of the above photograph.

Having topped the rise, it then drops down towards Caim, passing the site of the clachan of Skinid, one of the settlements which was cleared during the first half of the 19th century. Little of Skinid is visible today except the rectangular stone outlines of about five houses and some broken agricultural walls. The photograph above looks roughly eastwards, back towards Beinn na h-Urchrach.

One of the pleasures of walking this track is the views it offers at its highest point, from Mingary Castle on the left across Kilchoan and Kilchoan Bay to Ormsaigbeg. The straight section of road that leads into the village that can be seen just to right of centre is a continuation of the original track.

The Diary doesn't know when the old road was abandoned in favour of the new, but it probably coincided with the advent of the motor car. When the telegraph came to Kilchoan, the line followed the old road - some of the posts still lie beside it - and Dochie Cameron can remember meeting one of the linesmen on a motorbike along the track.

A map of the route is here.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Ships in the Sound - 1 - Ferries

We are fortunate to live beside a busy shipping lane between the mainland of Scotland and the Inner Hebridean island of Mull. It's a narrow passage, with viciously rocks shores and invisible shoals, but it is relatively protected from the Atlantic gales. It is also a busy stretch of water, particularly in Summer, when it carries a mix of boats from 100,000grt ocean-going ships to delicate sea kayaks.

This occasional series, "Ships in the Sound", describes the vessels which are most commonly seen in the Sound of Mull. The first entry describes four of Caledonian-MacBrayne's twenty-nine ferries.

Cal-Mac, as the company is often called, started some 160 years ago with a fleet of eight paddle-steamers which worked west coast and island routes to the north of Glasgow. The company nearly ceased trading after the First World War but continued business after a rescue by the London Midland Scottish train company. It became a state-owned company in the 1960s, with a monopoly on ferry services along the west coast, but now faces competition from outside tendering.

Two ferries serve the Kilchoan-Tobermory run. For most of the year the Loch Linnhe (above) plies the route, with a service which crosses the Sound seven times a day in summer, taking about 35 minutes. Built in 1986, the Loch Linnhe carries up to 12 cars and 200 passengers at a maximum speed of 9 knots. Being flat-bottomed, she is interesting to watch in a stiff cross-wind.

If the Loch Linnhe is out of service, usually during the winter for her annual overhaul, the smaller Raasay replaces her. Built in 1976, she can carry five cars at a squeeze, which have to be backed on, and up to 75 passengers. She has her limitations: an attempt to load a German coach at the Kilchoan terminal resulted in the vehicle becoming firmly wedged, half on and half off the boat, on a rising tide.

The Clansman plies the Oban-Coll-Tiree or Lochboisdale routes, and is one of Cal-Mac's newer ferries. Capable of over 16 knots, and carrying 90 cars and over 600 passengers, she was built by Appledore Shipbuilders in Devon. Her reliability was called into question when, in the summer of 2010, her camshaft went, requiring her car deck to be cut open so her engine could be removed for the repair.

The Lord of the Isles, which shares the Clansman's routes, is an older ship, built in 1989, which can carry 54 cars and 500 passengers. Like the Clansman, she has a top speed of 16 knots.

Much more detail about Cal-Mac here.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Seonaid's Legs

The strange objects in front of the kayak are called 'Seonaid's legs'. They are somewhat high-technology and, therefore, difficult to explain to a layman but, basically, they act as ballast in a lightly-loaded sea kayak venturing out into choppy waters.

They consist of the legs off a pair of fashionable jeans filled with sand and tied up at both ends, which are placed in the fore and aft stowage compartments.

The reason they are named after Seonaid is that the original jeans came from Seonaid Canning at a time when Seonaid's friend Rachael didn't have a pair to spare. We are now on our eighth pair, and they have served us very well.

So it was with considerable pleasure that we saw Seonaid, for the first time, venture out in one of our kayaks. She was a natural, taking to the sport like a duck to water - except without getting wet. These sea kayaks aren't easy to adapt to: a friend of ours who is a Royal Marine managed to turn one over within minutes of getting into it.

Seonaid made a couple of practice runs up and down the Ormsaigbeg shore, then, as can be seen in the bottom photo, set off for America.

Normally the Diary doesn't write about anyone without checking if it's okay with them, but Seonaid's Mum said this was okay - so it's gotta be.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Time Travel for All

At this time of year the night sky is beginning to fill with the winter constellations. Orion the Hunter, the Diary's favourite, still isn't visible at 11 in the evening, but two others, Andromeda and Cassiopeia, are.
Cassiopeia is fairly easy to find, a slightly lop-sided W high in the sky. Andromeda is a disappointment, lying below Cassiopeia - yet this constellation holds something which fills the Diary with awe. To find this wonder, locate the W of Cassiopeia and move about 2/3 the distance to Andromeda and, if you're lucky and the night is clear, you should find a faint smudge of light.

This is the Andromeda Galaxy, M31, a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way, the galaxy we live in. M31 contains an estimated 1,000,000,000,000 stars but, what is more important, it's close enough to see with the naked eye - and even better if you have binoculars or a telescope.

'Close' in astronomy doesn't mean any such thing, since 'closeness' is measured in light years - the distance light travels in a year. M31 is a mere 2.2 light years away - and that is what is so wonderful. Because, if you think about it, this means that the light you are seeing is 2.2 million years old, so the image you see is 2.2 million years old. You're looking back in time. You're time travelling to the days when the population of West Ardnamurchan was zero, and our ancestors were being eaten by sabre-toothed lions on the savanna plains of Africa.

The photo is from that great source of non-copyright material, Flickr. Many thanks to madmiked: his photostream can be viewed here.

Saturday, 25 September 2010


Heathers are amongst the most iconic plants of Scotland. They flower almost throughout the summer, though the most spectacular shows here on West Ardnamurchan tend to come in late August and September. Heather tolerates the acid soils of the highlands, and copes well with light grazing, so survives the attention of sheep. It will also regenerate after being burnt, the new shoots being food for grouse.

The most widespread heather variety is ling, Calluna vulgaris. It tends towards mauve and lilac in colour, has small flowers along the stems, and is the heather of Scottish poetry and song. There are hillsides on West Ardnamurchan which are completely covered with this plant, giving magnificent displays when in full flower.

Bell heather, Erica cinerea, is less common but has richer shades in its flowers, from deep purple.... pale pink. It is found growing in amongst ling.

While heather moorland has being lost under bracken and coniferous planting, there are places where it will survive where bracken and trees cannot grow. It's not uncommon to find heather plants clinging to apparently bare rock faces or, as here, growing happily on otherwise barren scree slopes.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Sea Kayaking

Almost ten years ago we bought three sea kayaks. We knew nothing about kayaking but felt that it must be a good way to see the stunning coastline we have around West Ardnamurchan. Our first steps were tentative - we considered it a big deal to paddle out as far as the public mooring buoys in Kilchoan Bay. Now we venture a little further, and the sport has far exceeded anything we expected because, as well as enabling us to travel distances, we can stick our noses into every beach and small bay, and paddle close to seals and sea otters. Our most exciting moments have been with basking sharks and dolphins.

West Ardnamurchan's coastline has high cliffs, hidden beaches, and great clefts down which burns tumble to the sea. Kayaking along the shoreline, looking up to where seagulls soar against the jagged rock face, is wonderfully peaceful, and the beaches offer tempting places to rest and have a picnic or barbeque. We've also kayaked with snow on the hills, in half a gale, and with a frost whitening the shore.

The geology, famous across the world for the great Ardnamurchan volcano which erupted some 55 million years ago, is vividly exposed in the cliffs. Here, dark intrusions of what was once liquid, molten basalt have been forced into the paler limestone rock that lay beneath the volcano when it formed.

But kayaking in this area has many hazards. As we found out early on, sea conditions can change dramatically, not only with the weather but as a headland is rounded. Our worst fright occurred on our first long voyage. We rounded Rubha Aird an Iasgaich, by Mingary Pier, and suddenly found ourselves in viciously choppy waters. And the wake from a passing ship - particularly, for some reason, Cal-Mac's Clansman - can easily turn a kayak over.

The view from the sea, even of familiar stretches of coastline like this one, along Ormsaigbeg, offer a completely different perspective. This photo was taken in August, and the heather-clad hills of the common grazings seem almost to sit on top of Trevor Potts' campsite, an ideal place from which to launch a boat.

We have never regretted the investment in our boats but we are well aware that the beauty of this coastline conceals many hidden dangers, so we have learnt to be cautious and well-equipped.

Thursday, 23 September 2010


The Diary has always set out to be very positive about life in Kilchoan but has to admit that, in all the joys of living in this beautiful place, there is the occasional down-side - and ticks are one. We walk miles every year across the wild and beautiful terrain that surrounds us without problems, but every now and then we come back with a passenger. The trouble with ticks is that they're tiny when they climb aboard, no bigger than a pinhead, and they manage to burrow through the smallest gap in clothing to secrete themselves in some very private places.

And they're clever. When they first hook themselves on and start the process of removing their meal, the unwitting carrier doesn't notice them. When the body does react it tells the fingers to start scratching, which is about the worst thing to do.

They're also quite selective about whom they bite. The Diary imagines that they view the passing human body in the same way as we eye up steak in the supermarket - there are better and worse cuts. The Diary doesn't suffer too much, but the Diary's wife is obviously a delicacy, as is one of its colleagues on HM Coastguard, who came back from a recent call-out with four new and very intimate friends.

There's plenty of advice on how to avoid them. They like hanging on bracken, where they're deposited by passing sheep and deer, but the better half collects them while picking raspberries in our back garden: we have no idea how the little wretches get there. Our cats carry round a menagerie of the blighters: being low-slung, they acquire them on their mousing expeditions.

Removing ticks isn't a problem - though it's best done sooner rather than later, as this Australian photo shows. We use the brutal approach, a pair of long fingernails or tweezers to pull them off, making very sure the whole of the head comes away, followed by a dab of antiseptic. We're aware that they can carry disease but the chances of contracting anything is so remote it doesn't bother us. For those that worry, there's plenty of advice here.

In general Ardnamurchan is wonderfully disease-free. We're off to Africa again shortly where disease is a big-time industry. Even nice people like Cheryl Cole get bitten there.

Deer tick photo (top) thanks to Stuart Meek on Wikimedia, here, and 'before and after' photo (bottom) thanks to Bjorn Christian Torrissen on Wikimedia, here.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Community Garden Update

by Trevor Potts
Monday dawned with little wind and not many showers, an ideal day to sheet the polytunnel at the Kilchoan Community garden site at the Sonachan Hotel.
Rich Van de Peer, Soily Pete, Kirsty Shirra, Chris Wilkinson, Jamie Santus, Tom Bryson and Trevor Potts spent the morning in preparation, taping and digging, bolting and hammering to get the structure right for the veiling (as opposed to unveiling) of the skeleton structure. After lunch, the wind dropped off to almost nothing and the polythene went on without a hitch, just in time to trap the midges inside our newly covered structure.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

More about Murphy

Murphy used to own the Ardnamurchan Natural History Centre at Glen More, where his live-in staff included Liz and Ritchie Dinnes who kept him in fine food and comfort by running the Centre for him. He has a brother, Henry, shown below, who now owns a large area of Ardnamurchan Estate and employs Ricky Clark as his personal man-servant.

Murphy and Henry originally came as kittens from the Cats' Protection League in Acharacle. At first they both lived at Glen More, where they became very popular with visitors. One of their favourite ploys was to encourage Ritchie and Liz to sell the visitors carrot cake which the visitors then fed to the cats - a perfect example of having your cake and eating it.

Unlike most cats, the brothers have no fear of dogs, so the Centre never had any problem with obstreperous pooches. Sadly, this included the Dinnes' two dogs who sulked when the cats were around so, finding these dogs too boring, the brothers sacked Ritchie and Liz, sold the Centre, and moved on, Murphy buying Steading Holidays, where he now employs John and Jacqui Chapple.

When you think that these two fine felines arrived on West Ardnamurchan as penniless kittens and now own, between them, Steading Holidays and a goodly share of Ardnamurchan Estate, this is a wonderful story of rags to riches.

Many thanks to Ritchie and Ricky for story and pictures. An earlier story about Murphy is here.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Up & Down the Sound

It's been a mixed week of weather for traffic in the Sound, from the rough spell we had on Tuesday, when the Norwegian well boat Ronja Pioneer passed the self-loading bulk carrier Vestnes, to the almost flat calm we had yesterday. The Pioneer has been up and down the Sound constantly over recent weeks as Marine Harvest are emptying their salmon nets along Loch Sunart, and she carries the catch - if that's what one calls it - to Mallaig for processing. Meanwhile, Vestnes is doing some of the work left by the absence of the Yeoman Bontrup, carrying aggregate from Glensanda super-quarry to markets across Europe.

This is the Celtic King, a cargo ship of 6,250dwt, passing Ardmore Point beacon and the telecommunication masts on Glengorm yesterday on her way to Warrenpoint at the head of Carlingford Lough in Northern Ireland. She has an incongruously high superstructure aft which must act like a sail in windy weather. The Diary is sure there must be good reason for the design but it does make an ugly ship.

Going in the opposite direction yesterday was the Lord of the Glens, a small cruise ship - or 'luxury yacht', as the operators term her - carrying a maximum of 54 passengers. Like Celtic King, she's hardly a beauty to look at with her low, furtive lines, but she is a compromise, being built to cope with the open sea and cruising inland waterways, including the Caledonian Canal. More about her here.

On Thursday this RAF Hercules made a low pass along the Sound. It had been lumbering around the skies for a couple of days, on one occasion going in the opposite direction to, and at the same height as a large skein of migrating geese.

We're incredibly fortunate to have the Sound of Mull spread out before us, as its traffic is a never-ending source of interest and, most of the time, it's as beautiful a panorama as one could find anywhere in the world.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Wet in the Sun

The Diary commented only yesterday on how hot it's been in the sun over the last few days. One should never make comments like that, because the weather immediately shows its opposite face, in this case by spending twenty-four hours dumping a load of Kilchoan Sunshine on us, spurring the burns into furious flood.

We've had upwards of 20mm in the last twenty-four hours. How quickly, rather than how much rain has fallen is measured on the hills - in this case, Glashbheinn - by the white ribbons of stream run-offs. After a deluge, this one boils down the hillside for an hour or two, then disappears.

The soil is so thin, and the underlying rock largely impermeable, that the water has nowhere else to go. Visible to the right is Kilchoan's old parish church, St Congans, now a ruin, surrounded by its graveyard.

This yacht came into Kilchoan Bay during the late afternoon to pick up a mooring on one of the public buoys. The number of yachts moving up and down the Sound has fallen off in the last couple of weeks. By the end of September, after which many insurances cease to be valid, most will be tied up for the winter. The land can't have made a very attractive picture, but.....

....there was a damp beauty in the high tide as it flooded the saltings at the back of the bay.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Autumn in Ormsaigbeg

There have been moments in the last few days when it's been hot in the sun - clear sky, light breeze, sunbathing-type hot. The wind's been in the north or northwest, though today it's a west-southwesterly, but Ormsaigbeg faces southeast and has Maol Buidhe to the west and Druim ne Gearr Leacainn to the north, so it's sheltered; and we've had showers to keep the garden happy. It's a time of year when it's wonderful to be outdoors.

All around us, the countryside is preparing for winter. As well as honey bees, there are innumerable bumble bees, mostly the smaller, pale brown ones - we haven't seen many of the big, black bumbling ones. The bumble bee pictured is doing so well his face is covered in pollen. And the wasps are around, but not in the plague numbers the newspapers were warning about earlier in the summer.

This stripy character was a good inch in diameter and had built a web whose anchor threads extended a distance of over six feet. He caught a large bluebottle and, while the wretched fly buzzed and struggled, wrapped him up and carried him away - still buzzing faintly.

It's been a great year for soft fruit. We've had the heaviest strawberry crop ever, and we've been eating raspberries since May - and both fruits are still coming. It was probably the fine, warm early summer, particularly in May and June, that set them up for the year.

Top photo shows a view westwards along the Ormsaigbeg road, with two croft houses, Port Beag on the right and Achashee at centre, and Maol Buidhe standing behind them.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Corran Restrictions

Those of us who use the Corran Ferry fairly frequently know that restrictions apply to the carriage of certain hazardous goods. For example, if a loaded petrol tanker comes on board, the number of cars that can be carried with it is reduced, and there are signs warning that users must not bring cans of fuel onto the ferry. But it was with some considerable surprise that the owner of this trailer-load of straw learned that he couldn't take it on the ferry at all because it was dangerous.

It transpired that it wasn't the straw as such that was the hazard. It's okay to take a load of straw across on the ferry, but it has to be completely covered, although it would have been all right to transport this load if it had been accompanied by some sort of fire hazard certificate.

The Diary is quite certain that there is a profound logic behind the ruling that straw is less hazardous covered than uncovered, which it might feel more willing to accept if there was some way of checking what loads are permissible and the rules about stowage before setting out. There's no shortage of signs at the slipway on the Nether Lochaber side - in fact they seem to be growing like weeds - but none that warn of any restrictions except fuel cans. And Highland Council's website seems to have only one reference to the Corran ferry (here), and that links to a page on Lochaber Transport Forum's website which gives information on timetables and fares.

So anyone worried about what they may of may not carry across Corran will need to phone Highland Council TEC Services on 01397 709 000.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Wanted: Hungry Sparrow Hawks

We have never seen so many small birds. The air is as full of them, goldfinches, chaffinches and - after a long absence - house sparrows. We saw the sparrow hawk the other day and he was so fat he had difficulty in staying in the air. All he had to do for a meal was, rather like a basking shark, cruise along with his mouth open.

There are so many on our bird feeders they have to queue up on the fencing wire while waiting their turn. At least, in this part of the world, they enjoy a fine view across Kilchoan Bay towards the Coastguard station and the lower slopes of Ben Hiant.

Some birds are getting crowded out: it's a long time since we saw any siskins, and yellowhammers, dunnocks, greenfinches and the tit family are struggling to get a look in. A coal tit turned up the other day, took one look at the mayhem, and hasn't been seen since.

So the Diary has been inventing feeders which the riff-raff can't access - like this one, made out of a length of plastic piping and a square of wire mesh, specifically designed for the blue tits. It took the sparrows three days sitting on the wire watching the tits to work out how to crack the problem. Back to the drawing board.