Monday, 28 February 2011

A First Walk

The Diary has been suffering from 'flu, and this morning ventured out along the Ormsaigbeg road for the first time in ten days. One of the few advantages of being ill and bedridden and miserable is that there was a heightened joy in being out again, particularly on such a lovely, sunny morning, and being able to notice some of the changes that have taken place - like the catkins are in full flower on the hazel, and seemed to positively glow in the early morning sunlight.

The grass and bracken were frozen in a hard frost, the air temperature last night having dropped below zero for the first time in some weeks, and the sky had more jet con-trails than cloud.

With only a short walk possible, we turned westward to the end of the road at Coilum, where Angus-John Cameron keeps four cows, three of which have given birth. Without the yellow plastic ear tags, it might have been difficult to spot the calves.

From the end of the road we looked down to a shingle beach in a bay where we have picnics in summer. As well as being protected from the wind, this bay seems to have little weed, so it's still pleasant to swim in at low tide. The bays along this coast also vary hugely in how much flotsam they collects: this one also has the advantage that it collects relatively little.

By the time we returned home we were able to sit out on the terrace and bask in the sun's warmth, disturbed only when the cat brought a fat field mouse and, having played with it until the wretched beast finally died of terror, proceeded to spent five minutes crunching bones as she ate it under our chair.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Scottish Wildcat Survey

Students from the University of Chester have been in the area recently, carrying out a survey which will contribute to a study they hope will help in the preservation of the Scottish wildcat.

The survey largely concerns local domestic and feral cats, as these offer a serious threat to the wildcat, either by transmitting disease or by encouraging cross-breeding and the loss of the wild gene pool through hybridisation. In fact, the number of feral and domestic cats in the area has fallen considerably over the last few years, mostly as a result of sterling work by local Cats Protection League members.

The students are working with the Scottish Wildcat Association, which highlights the fact that there are now only about 400 wildcats left in Scotland, some of which live on Ardnamurchan. They are extremely shy animals and very difficult to spot - in the fifteen years we have been here, we cannot say that we have seen one, though on two or three occasions we have glimpsed what might be one. The SWA site - which is well worth a visit - also highlights the fact that a fully-grown wildcat is twice as big as a typical domestic cat, can be extremely dangerous even to a fully-grown human, and the idea that the animal is a truly iconic British species - yet we are in imminent danger of losing it altogether.

Despite this, the good news is that the gamekeeper at Ardnamurchan Estate has reported that he is seeing more of them.

Photo courtesy Reg Mckenna on Flickr

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Too Early for Spring?

After a string of grey days it was good to get up to signs that the clouds were breaking, but this morning's dawn across the Sound of Mull gave no real hint of how completely the sky would clear and what a beautiful day we would have, with the sun warm on our winter skins and drying the sopping ground.

But the day's biggest surprise came from the two white heather bushes in the garden, which have flowered determinedly all winter, whatever the weather: they were covered in honey bees.

The Diary knows precious little about bees but this small swarm's almost ferocious activity is worrying. The air temperature was little above 8C, with a sharp a chill in the light breeze, so something must have driven them out of their hive this early, and this seems most likely to be hunger - last year, a hive elsewhere in the village which was active early was dead later in the Spring.

Meanwhile, for some creatures the fine day makes little difference, the daily hunt for a succulent blade of grass taking precedence over everything. 'Sheep with a View' seems an appropriate caption for this picture taken on Maol Buidhe at the western end of Ormsaigbeg.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Wartime Activity around Ardnamurchan

The Visitors' Centre at Ardnamurchan Point Lighthouse was opened in 1996. As well as a cafe and shop, the Trustees of the Ardnamurchan Lighthouse Trust were able to raise funds to create an extensive exhibition in the former Head Keeper's house. The exhibition cost a considerable sum of money but, at the time, grants were easier to come by than they are now. Despite the difficulties, with the generous assistance of Lochaber Geopark, one of the rooms was completely refurbished in 2009 to create a geology room, and the Trustees are now looking to make further changes.

One possibility being actively considered is to present an exhibit about activities around Ardnamurchan, in Loch Sunart and the Sound of Mull during the Second World War. For example, Tobermory was the base for HMS Western Isles, where crews for RN ships escorting Atlantic convoys were trained in anti-submarine warfare.

If anyone has any information, maps, objects or pictures which the Trust might use, we'd be very grateful if you would get in touch through The Diary at

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Lost Property

Plastic safety helmets aren't uncommon washed up along the Ardnamurchan shore but when Alasdair MacLachlan saw this one while he was securing a piece of pontoon this morning, he took a closer look.

It had goose barnacles on it so had obviously been in the sea for some time, which isn't surprising as it comes from the US aircraft carrier, the Dwight D Eisenhower which is currently in her home port of Norfolk, Virginia, having returned from deployment in the Middle East.

Launched in 1975, the Eisenhower is nuclear powered and, in theory, can stay at sea for twenty years without refuelling. She saw action in both the Gulf conflicts. She has a length of over three football pitches and carries a crew of more than 5,000, one of whom lost his helmet overboard.

Many thanks to Alasdair and Morven for the helmet photos and story.
Photo of Eisenhower courtesy US Navy

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Caves with Views

In the cliffs at the back of the bay called Camas nan Clacha Mora (the bay of the large stones), tucked in below the heights of Ben Hiant, there are three caves. All are above the shingle beach and out of reach of the storm waves, the first two slightly higher above the sea than the third. All show some signs of habitation and offer stunning views across the Sound of Mull to Tobermory and Morvern.

The first only goes back a few feet and is the dampest of the three, but it has a low stone wall along the front suggesting that someone found a use for it. Since there are plenty of signs of old agricultural workings - broken walls and piles of stones removed from tiny fields - it may have been no more than a small sheep enclosure.

The second, a few metres east of the first, shows signs of recent habitation, including the sort of orange plastic bag using by campers to keep sleeping bags dry. In fact the cave is reasonably dry even though it's not as deep as the first. The two logs leaning against it might have supported a tarpaulin or plastic sheet to keep out the westerly rain.

The third is by far the most substantial, and stands right at the top of the beach. In the recent past, it was the seasonal home of a man who appeared each summer to live a hermit's life. It's spacious, airy and, most importantly, by far the driest of the three. It has several ledges which might serve as beds and an impressively large and robust bird's nest to the upper left of the entrance.

All three have easy access to fresh running water and shower facilities. The beach is probably the best on the peninsula for drift wood, and all sorts of other useful items are washed up along it, including plastic containers, nets, fishing buoys and boxes, tyres, rope and a Calor gas cylinder.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Aquila Enquiry

A five-day inquiry into the loss of three lives when the Aquila, a clam dredger, sank off the Ardnamurchan north shore in July 2009, opened in Fort William Sheriff Court yesterday.

Several members of Kilchoan Coastguard team have received citations requiring them to attend to give evidence. The team was the first of the emergency services to arrive on scene, though it could do little from the shore other than give an approximate grid reference for the wreck, the hull and rudder of which protruded above the water near the Bo Fascadale reef.

Since the accident, the Marine Accident and Investigation Branch of the Department for Transport has produced a full report. A first report from the Inquiry is here, and an account of what happened, with a link to the MAIB report, is here.

Monday, 21 February 2011

The Forgotten Small Bird

Dunnocks are one of the Diary's favourite birds, not least because they are so un-noticeable. They're the sort of bird that minds its own business, that has its own quiet agenda, the forgotten small bird of the British garden. In fact, if most people were asked to describe a dunnock, their answer would probably be 'A What?'

Dunnocks, to go with their low profile, are drab brown and grey, spend most of their life creeping around on the ground and under bushes - so much so that they often look like a scurrying mouse - and have a pathetic small cry which sounds like 'tweep!' Yet they have tremendous personality. They're one of the early risers, a bird who's out and about and looking sharp long before your lazy chaffinch has thought about stirring. And they're remarkably unafraid, coming close when the morning grain is distributed, almost to the point where they will feed from an outstretched hand.

When a noisy crowd of chaffinches, goldfinches and tits is squabbling over the peanut feeders, or a pile of starlings are making a mess of the bird table, look closely, because the dunnock will be no part of this chaos. Instead he'll be nipping around the edge of things, picking up all the delectable scraps that have been scattered by those with poor table manners.

Yet dunnocks can be remarkably aggressive - they're a close relative of the robin, so one would expect it. In spring, the males make a big show of themselves, flicking their tail and wings to attract a female's attention, and will chase a rival out of the garden and for quite a distance beyond.

It is, perhaps, a sad reflection of the way life takes it out on the quiet and the unassuming that the dunnock is one of the cuckoo's favourites when it comes to choosing a nest to invade.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Jetty - 1

For most of us, the jetty near The Ferry Stores is a place to launch pleasure boats, a meeting point on a summer's evening where the children fish for crabs while the adults talk, and a centre for the annual Kilchoan Regatta (pictured). But it has a long and important economic history, and continues to be used by local fishermen.

While the Diary hasn't found anyone who knows exactly how old it is, Malcolm MacMillan of Grigadale believes it to date from the early 17th century. It's certainly far older than the Calmac pier which was built in the early 20th century.

In those days it wasn't called the 'jetty' but the 'slipway'. The earliest photos on the West Ardnamurchan Vintage Photographs site, above, show it as a stone structure protected on the western side from the worst of the weather by large blocks of rock.

Another, perhaps later picture shows the more organised structure of the slipway itself, built of unmortared but dressed rock (many thanks to Iain MacDonald who posted both pictures on the WAVP site).

We know that around the late 19th century the ferry man, Duncan Cameron, used the slipway for his busiess. He built the Ferry House which stands on the opposite side of the road. He was related in some way to Allan Campbell who had a house on what is now the site of The Ferry Stores because, when Duncan and Allan drowned in separate incidents, Duncan's sons, Lachlan and John Cameron, inherited the job of carrying people to Tobermory and out to the passing MacBrayne ferries.

This photograph shows what is probably a Cameron brothers' boat loading sheep to be taken by sea to market in Oban - many thanks to Mary Khan for posting this on the WAVP site.

The jetty played a pivotal role in supplying the Kilchoan area. All 'imported' goods, such as coal and food, came in to Kilchoan Bay, usually in one of the famous puffers which beached and was unloaded at low tide. The original shop, which Lachlan Cameron built on the site he inherited from Allan Campbell and which is now the dwelling house for The Ferry Stores, was conveniently placed for these goods - there was, for example, a coal storage area or 'coalree' where the present shop structure stands.

The West Ardnamurchan Vintage Photographs site is here.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Winter Road Maintenance: the Facts

From John MacFadyen

My main route is Salen to Kilchoan or vice-versa. I start at 6.00am and normally begin gritting at 6.15am, depending on weather and road conditions. It takes me an hour and a half to do the route normally but if the road is really bad, it can take up to two or three hours. The route is from the depot on the Portuairk road to the Ferry Stores, then to the pier which is the main bus route. We don't normally do side roads unless the conditions are really bad, which is down to me deciding when I get to Salen. If I think the road conditions are really bad, I can request to turn about and come back down to Kilchoan.

At times we have a loader down at Kilchoan depot but sometimes we have to take it back to Strontian if the other loader breaks down. That means I have to go to Strontian to pick up more salt. Depending on road conditions elsewhere, I sometimes have to cover other routes on the main roads - for example, on Tuesday I had to go to Lochailort, as the other gritter had broken down, so I cannot always get down to cover side roads which are always second to be gritted.

Sometimes I go out and I don't have to grit at all. This has happened quite often this winter but sometimes, when daylight comes in, a frost can come in very sharply, but I am not to know what the road conditions are like on the side roads. Perhaps people in Portuairk and Sanna could phone Strontian (01967 402027) and report the road conditions, but it will be up to the command whether I go back down or not.

Sometimes if the forecast is bad, we will do a pre-grit on all routes, which includes all the side roads. We are supposed to be off the side roads before darkness comes in - this is for safety reasons.

I apologise for any inconvenience caused due to lack of gritting, but it is out of my hands. Drivers be wary of the road conditions and drive accordingly. Four wheel drive vehicles act exactly as a car does unless four wheel drive is used.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Bird Life along the Ormsaigbeg Shore

Oystercatchers are one of The Diary's favourite shore birds, partly because they're remarkably smart-looking birds at all times of year, partly because of their cheerful piping call and busy social life. We have large numbers of them along the shore, and they're with us throughout the year, moving in small flocks at the moment, although they'll soon be splitting into pairs ready for nesting.

We see wigeon only during the winter months, often in groups bobbing around close to the shore, the drakes easily distinguishable with their smart chestnut heads and pale yellow cap. These flocks are like a gang of small children, constantly breaking up as individuals indulge in noisy quarrels, only to come together again.

Herons - this is a grey heron - are the old men of the shore, crotchety, antisocial and drab. If there's more than one of them, then one will be chasing the other away. As well as working his way along the shore, this heron has spent much of his winter in the marshier parts of the lower fields, hunting for frogs or field mice.

We've had four buzzards along Ormsaigbeg this winter, two parents and the two young they reared last summer. The parents spend some of their time chasing their progeny away but, like so many young, they're less than keen to set off on their own.

The buzzards have a series of favoured perches along the shore, either on prominent fence posts or in the tops of trees. As well as the nuisance caused by their young, they are regularly harassed by other birds, particularly the local hooded crows and larger seagulls. But the buzzards, in their turn, become quite aggressive if an eagle strays into their territory, flying up to see it off.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Bangladesh Boat

This 3D impression of a river cruiser comes from Tim Steele, a Kilchoan resident who, like our Antarctic explorer Trevor Potts, spends some of his year in a far-flung place. In Tim's case, it's almost the opposite environment to Trevor's cold, southern retreat: Tim works in Bangladesh.

Tim says: "This ship is under construction by the company I am supporting here in Bangladesh. Working on the basis that sustainable tourism is probably the best form of aid and development support for socially and economically excluded people - as the people of West Ardnamurchan well know - the project is committed to facilitating tourist development in this amazing country. The craft, fitted to international 3 star standard with a strong environmental twist, will be named MV Tanguar Haor, an 'inland sea' in this land of over 700 rivers, the land of the delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra.

"The company, Tiger Tours, in recognition of Bangladesh's strong historic links to Scotland - the resort on its 120km beach, Cox's Bazar is named after a Scot - sponsored the publication of my MacIain book.

"It's amazing how West Ardnamurchan's small population seems to have such worldwide connections. Of course, a wander through the old graveyard of St Conglan's will show that there is nothing new in this."

Tim's book, "Clan MacIain - the MacDonalds of Ardnamurchan" is available from Kilchoan Community Centre and The Ferry Stores. Details here.


There are reports of a large solar flare which may produce some spectacular auroras in the next couple of days. With the Kilchoan weather forecast fine for tonight, we may have a good sighting in our northern sky.

Keep a check on what's happening at AuroraWatch, and watch a BBC video clip of the solar flare happening here.

Picture courtesy NASA.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011


That world-famous institution, the University of Kilchoan, has chalked up yet another success story with six students completing of a course on hedge-laying which took place over last weekend. Hedge-laying is a country skill which, like stone wall building, has gone into serious decline.

Led by course tutor Pete Holmes, the students were supervised by two ducks, offering the sort of pupil:teacher ratio, at 2:1, that one would expect of this high-class institution.

While normal breaks on UoK courses offer a cup of coffee and a chocolate biscuit, this course saw an improvement which The Diary expects at all future courses. The venue was Meall mo Chridhe, a high-class local restaurant, so the participants were exceptionally well looked after.

The results from what one of the students described as 'a brilliant course' can be seen in this picture. The hedges of West Ardnamurchan will never be the same again.

Many thanks to Pat Glenday for pictures and information

Tuesday, 15 February 2011


We woke to a fine morning with a brisk southeaster blowing, but surprised to find both snow on the hills - this is a view from the shoreline near the shop looking northeast - and a hard frost in pockets of land protected from the wind. The croft houses visible are Bay View, at left, and Tobar na Biolar, and the hills behind are part of the broken ground which builds to the heights of Meall an Tarmachain, the hill of the ptarmigan - a bird we no longer see here.

Walking back from the shop, The Diary passed its favourite plot in Ormsaigbeg, the home of the five little pigs. To give some idea of what they have achieved in the three weeks since they took up residence in Kilchoan's West End, this is what the land looked like before their arrival, and....

.... this is what it looks like today. And the pigs have done a far better job than any rotovator could have done, as they've also removed most of the rhizomes from which the bracken will sprout in the spring.

Little wonder that the Scottish Farmer (see article below) heaped such praise on the Kilchoan Pig Syndicate.


Congratulations to Hughie MacLachlan and the Kilchoan Pig Rearing Syndicate on the publication of this major article in the widely-read Scottish Farmer. Published at the beginning of January, not only was it an extensive article, but it put a very positive slant on everything the Syndicate has been doing.

In it, Hughie revealed ambitious plans to clear the area of the bracken which is invading many of the disused crofts. As regular Diary readers will know, some of the pigs have recently started work on the Ormsaigbeg end of the village.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Antarctic Near-Miss

From Trevor Potts in Antarctica:

Picture 1 - This is me driving a zodiac past the remains of a large tabular iceberg when a huge piece of ice dropped off without warning.

Picture 2 – This caused a huge wave as I crashed through the brash ice, so I gunned the engine to out-run the wave.

Picture 3 – The shock of the first calving caused the second berg to calve with hundreds of tons of ice sliding off just as I was getting clear of the first one. This caused an even bigger and closer wave.

Picture 4 - As some of the weight was released the bergs both reared up in spectacular fashion and rocked up and down causing further commotion.

Earlier, three or four minutes into the start of this iceberg cruise, my engine had died (dirty fuel) as I was passing these bergs at a few hundred yards distance. I had to wait ten minutes for another zodiac to tow me back to the ship for the spare zodiac. As you can imagine I was a little concerned at another engine failure at this point.

Background to the story:

For ten years I have been zodiac cruising around the stranded bergs in Pleneau Bay, often spotting Leopard Seals and Crabeater Seals hauled out on the small ice floes. We also see Humpback Whales, Minke Whales and Killer Whales in this area. We usually work with 5/6 zodiacs and spend about an hour or so cruising the icebergs. We occasionally see the bergs disintegrate but this spectacular double calving so close, was a first for me. Although it looks in the photos like I was very close I was about 200 yds away. It was still necessary to quickly get some distance away from the resulting waves.

Trevor runs the camp site at Ormsaigbeg, details here.

Evening Mist

Photo taken yesterday evening from Ben Hiant croft looking across Kilchoan Bay, with the slope of Maol Buidhe to the right and the northern point of Mull in the distance.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Request for Identification

Last Easter, while staying at The Kennels on Pier Road, we spotted this butterfly (moth?). It was about three inches across.

Can anyone identify it?

Rob Thompson
Hovingham, N. Yorks.

A Wee Butterfly

From The Raptor:

This wee butterfly was seen in the Mingary area on Thursday 10th February, an unusual sighting as it is still quite a bit outside the normal flying season for this particular butterfly which is a Small Tortoiseshell. It's not usually flying until well into March.

It is quite a common butterfly in this area of Scotland. Although their numbers are falling they are not yet in any danger. The main cause for their decline is the larva of a small fly which lays its eggs on the common nettle, which is the main food source for the Small Tortoiseshell which also lays its eggs on the nettle. The fly larva is eaten by the butterfly larva, and then the gore begins as the eaten larva then begins to eat the butterfly larva from the inside (lovely).

Anyway I wish this wee fella all the best.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

The Inverockle Yurt

From Lara Van de Peer

A yurt is a traditional Mongolian dwelling, also known as a ger. They are beautiful, light, airy and peaceful spaces to be in and we thought that Inverockle would be the ideal place to have one.

We've always fancied running a campsite of some sort or at least having a yurt or two to rent out. When we arrived at Inverockle a couple of years ago, we realised that it would give us the opportunity of carrying out this dream and that's what we are doing now. Last year we bought the yurt and after a lot of preparation work, put it up. It took two people three days to build the platform that it sits on and then one more full day of blood, sweat and tears to raise it! To begin with we experienced a few teething problems, but with perseverance and some dry weather, we managed to iron these out. We had a couple of paying guests last year, but we are trying to let as many weeks as we can during the coming season. This year we'll also have a compost toilet and outside shower in place for our visitors.

Yurts are warm - they have four layers of insulation including one made of wool, and ours has a small wood stove that can be lit to dry the place out and keep it warm, even when it's very cold outside. Ours is a traditional Mongolian yurt and was imported into the country. Some yurts are made in the UK, but they constructed slightly differently and tend not to be so pretty. Our one has horse hair ropes, camel gut fixings and is beautifully hand painted in rich colours. Inside there is a fully equipped kitchen area, a sitting area, a very comfy double futon bed and two single fold out beds.

From March, when it goes up again, the yurt will be situated in a flat field beside the Ockle burn, looking across the sea to the islands of Eigg, Rhum and Muck. The setting at Inverockle is idyllic, so if it's solitude you are after, then this is certainly the place to stay.

Lara and Richard van de Peer run Inverockle Yurt holidays, more details here.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Three French Hens & a Cockerel

From Tom Bryson

The security staff at Larne Ferry Port clocked a “first” recently - the first foot passenger to carry live hens as hand baggage. Well, it would have cost nearly £200 to take the van over and as long as the paperwork is ok there’s no problem, unless they get loose. The hens and a magnificent cockerel might have been a bit traumatised by the journey but that was nothing compared to last week's Force 9 gales which hit just after they arrived in Ormsaigbeg.

As you’d expect of French birds, these chickens are stylish, with big red comb, white feathers and blue legs - “bleu, blanc, et rouge,” the colours of the French flag. But they are not just colourful. In France they sell for up to €80 (£68) oven-ready, with the head and legs still attached to verify their authenticity. They are the “Poulet de Bresse” gourmet table chickens when fattened on a mash of maize and milk.

These Bresse Gauloise are deemed to be so valuable that the French don’t let the eggs or breeding stock out of the country. My stock got to Kilchoan via Germany, Co. Cork, Co. Antrim and the Cairn Ryan ferry and, as far as I know, they are the only Bresse Gauloise chickens on mainland Britain. The Rare Poultry Society doesn’t have a record of any. If they are fertile and survive Kilchoan’s poultry predators, the offspring should be oven ready for Christmas 2011.

Tom Bryson is a crofter in Ormsaigbeg

Photos courtesy of professional photographer Mr Ricky Clarke