Thursday, 30 June 2011

Picture of the Day

This young blue tit wasn't going to be disturbed from his meal of peanuts, not even by a camera being held within six inches of him.

Snakes Again

The Diary had a nasty feeling that it was a mistake to post that picture of a python yesterday. A reader has sent in a photo (above) of a huge python that made its way into a refugee camp in the Sudan one night, and found the security guard asleep.

The photo shows the python dead, having become caught in an electric fence on its way out - and you know what that lump in its body is.

Many thanks to Jane Brown for story & picture.

Potato Problems

For the first year ever, we planted potatoes in our vegetable plot. The variety that we put in is called 'Anya', and it came up a treat. We dutifully piled earth around the stem as each plant grew and added appropriate amounts of fertilizer. Everything looked great until about ten days ago, when some of the leaves came out in nasty, brown-black spots. The number of spots grew, with some of the plants badly affected and some not at all. Then the leaves started to turn yellow and, very quickly, began to fall off.

Potatoes have been a staple of the Highland diet for generations, and the failure of the potato crop, particularly in 1846, and the resulting famine was one of the causes of the great Scottish migrations out of the country to places like Canada, New Zealand and Australia. At that time, the scourge of the potato was 'blight', a fungus which thrives in warm, wet conditions. Its spores, bourn by the wind, can travel miles, and, once the plant is infected, there is no cure, the resulting tubers being either rotten or so damaged that they will rot if stored.

We consulted the top experts in the village, hoping against hope that what our precious spuds had was some mild, easily cured ailment - but no such luck: we have blight. We have been advised to strip away all the infected foliage and burn it. As a result, we won't be harvesting much of a crop. And, to make matters worse, our tomatoes, a plant which is related to the potato, are also looking sick.

Little wonder, then, that our local crofters have almost given up growing potatoes. The last field in Ormsaigbeg to be put down to the crop was afflicted by blight, the 'golden wonder' variety suffering the worst. There are varieties which are disease-resistant: if we try again next year, we'll have to be sure we buy the right seed potatoes.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011


Like all snakes, adders are shy and, therefore, rarely seen, but this beautiful specimen has moved in with Pat Glenday, a resident of Kilchoan village. It spends its day sunning itself on the stones which surround her house and only moves for cover if disturbed - and then reappears almost immediately.

Adders aren't common around here, but the local people who see them most are those who do grass cutting. The Diary has only seen one in fifteen years, and it was a young adder squashed flat on the road. Yet the townships of Ormsaigmore and Ormsaigbeg are named after them, ormr being snake in Norse, and vik being bay.

Adders are poisonous though the bite is rarely dangerous, causing more anxiety than anything else. Nevertheless, if someone is bitten, medical help should be sought because, as well as the effects of the bite - swelling around the bite, pain, nausea, dizziness and fainting - the danger of anaphylaxis requires immediate action. The site here gives advice on what to do in the event of a bite.

Co-incidentally, an East African friend has just sent this picture of a python hunt: it puts things into perspective.

Many thanks to Pat Glenday for the adder picture.

Shop Girl's Qualification

Rachael, who works at The Ferry Stores and Post Office in the village, received a BSc in Geography at a ceremony at Edinburgh University yesterday. Next thing, she'll want a pay rise.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Orchids - 2

The third orchid species to be found in this area (see earlier post, here, for the other two) is the Heath Spotted Orchid, Dactylorhiza maculata. It has many of the characteristics of the Common Spotted but the shape of the flower is different, the two outer lips of the lowest petal being broad, rounded, sometimes frilled, with a small, v-shaped 'tooth' between.

Heath Spotted flowers vary through pale pink to lilac to white. While they are commonly spotted or patterned, some can be plain, the most noticeable being the pure white specimens.

The Heath Spotted seems to be the most common orchids in this area. It is found along the roadsides in Kilchoan and Ormsaigbeg, in the croft fields, and across much of the lower-lying moorland of West Ardnamurchan - the first orchids we found this year, in early May, were Heath Spotteds, to the south of Grigadale around Lochan Caorach - post here.

The fourth local species is the Fragrant Orchid, Gymnadenia conopsea. The flowers are rich pink, more spread out in the head, and characterised by long 'spurs' - spines behind the flower - and prominent side petals, like wings (see the bottom picture in this post for a close-up). They are also, as the name suggests, fragrant: if you see someone with their nose in the grass and their bottom in the air, they're probably enjoying the delicate scent of a Fragrant Orchid.

The problem for laymen such as The Diary is that these orchids readily hybridise, so there appears to be a complete spectrum across the species. For example, plants with the the most impressive magenta columns are often Northern-Common crosses.

While the species are supposed to favour slightly different conditions, there is no discernable pattern around here. The plants occur in groups, often widely separated, so one hillside may have nothing but Northern Marsh, while another half a mile away is crowded with Heath Spotted. The main, controlling factors seem to be cover, sheep, cutting and height. Few orchids survive under a thick over-cover such as bracken or heather, though some are to be found along the edges of bracken stands where there is some light. They do not appear in fields intensively grazed by sheep, nor where mowing takes place, nor high on the hills. Their favourite places are old farmland which is slightly damp, with short, uncropped grass and no cover; they seem to survive well on very thin soil.

Orchids, like all wildflowers, are protected, so they should not be disturbed. Unfortunately for those of us who would love to have them in the garden, they are very difficult to propagate. Although each plant can produce many seeds, these have insufficient nutrients to survive: each seed must develop a symbiotic relationship with a fungus which provides the food they need.

The excellent site, West Highland Flora, here, lists no less than twenty local orchid species. Perhaps, by the end of next June's flowering, The Diary will have found some more.

Monday, 27 June 2011


The scallop dredger Vervine, BA842, has been anchored overnight in the mouth of Kilchoan Bay a couple of times in the last week or so - this picture shows her at 11pm last Thursday night, though she was well away by the time The Diary shook a leg the next morning. The picture also shows how light it still was at that time - in fact, at this time of year, it's only dark during the night if there is a heavy overcast

We saw Vervine moored up in Tobermory harbour a week earlier when we went across in the RIB to inspect the cruise ship Black Watch (post here). Although she's registered in Ballantrae, she's a local boat and, even though she's over 40 years old, well-maintained.

Scallop dredging raises some quite strong feelings as the dredges do considerable damage to sea floor ecology. It's also a dangerous occupation: the Aquila, which sank with all hands off the north coast of Ardnamurchan back in July 2009, was dredging at the time she went down.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Happiness is a Drop of Sunshine

We've had 12mm of pure, unfiltered, warm Kilchoan sunshine in the past 24 hours, that's half an inch in the old currency, and it's still coming. The ground needs it. Although the weather hasn't been hot over the last few weeks, it has been fairly dry, so this has replenished the burns and will help to bring the grass on for the sheep. We're grateful, but it would be nice if it would now stop and allow us some of the ordinary variety of sunshine.

There are some advantages with this sort of weather. Certain people at this time of year need an excuse to spend hours indoors in front of the TV watching people bash a small white ball around a London lawn. It's a general rule that, if it's wet in western Scotland, then it's sunny in the southeast of England, so the tennis hasn't had any delays and they can stay indoors with a clear conscience.

For some people, the ones who have come up here to have a holiday under canvas, there probably isn't the option of the box, and this sort of weather can be a bit of a misery. But most know what to expect coming up here, have packed some good rainwear, and go off into the hills whatever the weather.

For others, this weather is luxury. The small toad which is resident in our back garden has a great selection of slugs to keep him happy.

Top picture shows St Congan's Church with the summit of Glas Bheinn smothered in cloud. The stream on the hill's flanks only runs after prolonged and heavy rainfall.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Aerial Arguments

A day of 'Kilchoan sunshine' for a change today, brought in by a warm but damp westerly. At times we couldn't see across the Sound to Mull, so what was going on in the foreground became the focus of our interest.

It's evident that the local small birds don't like this weather at all, so there are many more of them at the bird feeders looking for an easy meal, which leads to a little overcrowding.

There is some tolerance. Normally, a blue tit and a siskin wouldn't be seen dead together on the same peanut dispenser, but these two shared it for some time before they fell out - literally, as they were so intent on scrapping that they fell off the feeder, leaving a space which was immediately seized by another siskin.

Queues built up at some of the feeding stations - here, a chaffinch on the right thinks better of trying to push a young goldfinch off his feeder, while, on the left, a siskin makes an aggressive bid to displace another goldfinch.

Things are crowded in part because there are so many young birds around. In the garden we currently have the young of blackbirds, siskins, goldfinches, chaffinches, blue tits, sparrows, dunnocks and robins, one of which is pictured. In fine weather they spread out across the countryside. If this weather continues, we'll run out of peanuts.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Picture of the Day

We've been in a northwesterly airstream for the past couple of days, with lumpy, low-level cumulus throwing a patchwork of shadows across Ben Hiant, and the sun often dimmed by much higher cirrus. So it's been warm in the sun and out of the wind, which is still much too cool for the time of year.

It's a Rabbit's Life

This rabbit was hopping around in front of The Ferry Stores this morning, obviously very anxious to go in to the shop. However, even though some of the staff came out, and at least one noticed him, none thought to hold the door open so he could go in.

He had probably heard that there are some really first class carrots for sale in the shop at the moment, produced by the Community Garden (website here), which is currently supplying the Stores with a lot of good-looking vegetables.

There are plenty of rabbits living alongside humans in the townships here - it was only last Monday that we published a picture of one sitting in the road during the morning rush hour (here). The rather fat one in the picture above lives near a very well-kept caravan along the Ormsaigbeg road, the main reason being that he helps the owner to maintain a quite beautiful lawn.

We rarely see evidence of rabbits beyond the boundaries of the townships, even when we've been up in the hills looking for tracks in the snow. This is probably because the grass isn't maintained at a suitable length for them - and, of course, there are no shops up there.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Contrasting Technologies

This is a John Deere 6320. It's at the cutting edge of modern croft farming, a 95 horsepower, 4.5 litre, 4 cylinder beast of a machine which weighs in at 10,000lb and can cut a hayfield in less time than it takes you to sneeze. It has a cab with pneumatic suspension, climate control, air seat, a cooler box and CD, and driving it must be a little like taking off in a Boeing 747.

In the next field is a Massey-Ferguson 35, the cutting-edge of crofting technology in the early 1960s. It produces 37 horsepower from an engine which starts on petrol but is then switched to kerosene (paraffin). There is no cab, so when it rains the driver gets wet, and a very hard seat, but it does have a steering wheel and gear shift.

Sadly, on the day The Diary took her picture, she had broken down. For a 60-year old, this is to be expected - The Diary has the same problem quite frequently - but she was quickly repaired where she stood in the field.

The Diary wonders if the John Deere will still be going in 60 years time.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Orchids - 1

A year ago, The Diary was moved by Ardnamurchan's wonderful display of wild orchids and the difficulty of identifying them to lump the whole lot under a new species, Dactylorhiza ardnamurchensis (post here). This was the product of pure ignorance and laziness, for which The Diary apologises.

To make matters worse, last year does not, after all, seem to have been exceptional. Despite the errant weather in May, certain fields and some roadsides are, once again, a mass of these delicate flowers, so beautiful that June around here needs to be remembered as Orchid Month.

Mid to late June sees the flowering of four species of orchid around Kilchoan. The most noticeable, on account of its stunning magenta colour, is the Northern Marsh Orchid, Dactylorhiza purpurella (above). The first one appeared in the grass verge near the gate of Meall mo Chridh but more flowered later along the roadsides in Kilchoan itself - many of which, sadly, have since been mown down by the Council - in fields above the road in Ormsaigbeg and between The Ferry Stores and the slipway. As well as the distinctive colour, it is characterised by broad green leaves, a compact head, and a diamond-shaped lower lip to the flower.

The the flowers of the Common Spotted Orchid, Dactylorhiza fuchsii, appear in pale lilacs through to whites, with darker spots in a variety of patterns and shades. The lower lip of the flower has three prominent, pointed lobes, and the leaves are often but not always spotted, the spots being broad across the leaf (see picture below). It is in this species that impressively high cylindrical flower heads can be found. While its name suggests it should be the most plentiful, it doesn't appear to be: the few good examples this year have been found in the croft fields of Ormsaigbeg.

A second post on Orchids follows....

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Birds Along the Shore

A pair of shelduck have been raising a family just below Caistel Dubh nan Cliar along the Ormsaigbeg shore. When we kayaked passed them the other day we were amazed at how fast the young had grown - but there were four young then, and this morning there were only three. A buzzard has been very active in the area. We've noticed him being 'seen off' by....

....the oystercatchers who live near the shelduck. This morning the oystercatchers were joined by a pair of seagulls, forcing the buzzard to make a very hasty retreat.

This sandpiper must have a nest somewhere near where we store the kayaks as he became extremely agitated when we were getting them out, standing on top of a dry stone wall and twittering until we were well clear.

Meanwhile, old man heron has been fishing in Lochan na Nal, by The Ferry Stores. He's sharing this salt lochan with a family of mallard, the ducklings still very small. Herons are quite willing to take small birds so it must be an uneasy relationship.

Midsummer's Day

Midsummer's day dawned beautifuly clear with hardly a breath of wind across the Sound. These photos were taken at 9am from the jetty below The Ferry Stores, the one above looking along the Ormsaigbeg shore, the one below towards Kilchoan.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Gem of an Apartment to Let

Pat MacPhail, who owns the traditional croft house Tigh an Uilt in Kilchoan township, has a self-catering apartment to let which takes up all the top floor, giving it a wonderful view across Kilchoan Bay and the Sound of Mull to Mull itself. It's a smart, modern unit which sleeps two to three, in a lovely setting.

Pat is the first person in the village to promote her property through a video, which she commissioned and in which she herself stars. It took no little courage on her part, but The Diary thinks she's done herself and her property credit. Well done Pat!

The video is here, and details here.

Midsummer's Evening

Photo taken at ten last night looking across the Sound of Mull to Tobermory Lighthouse, with the northbound bulk carrier Yeoman Bridge caught in the last rays of the setting sun. In the distance to the right is Ben Talla on Mull.

Picture of the Day

A rabbit sits in the middle of the road near the Parish Church during this morning's rush hour.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Lochan Druim na Claise

With a fine day forecast today we set off to find one of the lochans we haven't yet visited. Since unexplored lochans are becoming scarcer, this entails longer and longer walks to reach them. Today's objective, at the southwest tip of the peninsula, south of the Lighthouse, was Lochan Druim na Claise, druim meaning ridge and claise a narrow valley. The name describes the lochan perfectly as it is an unusually elongate, almost 500m long, hemmed into a narrow valley between two ridges.

Leaving the car on the Lighthouse road at NM423669, we passed through a gate into the wild country to the south of the Lighthouse. It's extremely hard walking, through long grass, marsh and over rocky ridges. Much to our surprise, tucked into a small valley, we came across evidence of human habitation, what might have been a small house, pictured, along with dry stone walls and a byre. This might have been a summer sheiling, but it might have been a place where someone lived permanently, a lonely spot cut off from the world.

Due to a slight navigational error by The Diary, we drifted west, reaching the high ridges that run along this coastline below Garbhlach Mhor, NM428653. We then followed the ridge southeastwards, climbing until we reached a well-built cairn from where he had wonderful, 360-degree views, southwest towards Coll, Tiree, Mull and the Treshnish Islands, and north towards Ardnamurchan Lighthouse, Bay McNeil with its white beaches, and, at the right, Grigadale farm; beyond, in the distance, is the Isle of Eigg.

We stopped for lunch a few metres further along the ridge, propping ourselves against the concrete pillar of the trig point at NM423645. On one side the slope fell almost vertically into the Sound, so we looked straight down on passing yachts, on the other it dropped steeply to the lochan.

In all, we covered some six kilometres, our only company being wheatears, a marsh warbler, pipets, seagulls, hooded crows and a ewe with twin lambs near the trig point.

A map of the walk area is here.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

It's Silage Time!

Silage-making on the croft lands is highly mechanised these days and, unlike in the old hay-making times, when the work could stretch over weeks depending on the weather, the process is very quick.

With the weather fine, this field along Ormsaigbeg was cut and turned on Thursday....

....and by Friday afternoon, with the weather holding, the grass was ready to be prepared for storage. Machines are great in that they make quick work of a job but, on the down side, if there's a problem, supervising the wife while she fixes it can take time.

There shouldn't be any problems with this machine which is new, and makes a great job of packaging the bale. The Diary confesses to having spent some time just watching the bale go round and round as it was wrapped in layer upon layer of polythene.

Despite the weather during May and June, it doesn't look like being a bad silage harvest this year.

Strontian Mod

From Morven MacPhail

Yesterday's Mod, which took place in Strontian, was a competition in Gaelic singing and recitation involving individual entries and six schools spread across Mull, Morvern and Ardnamurchan. The children at Kilchoan, which must be the smallest of the schools, did remarkably well.

The Kilchoan School choir, which consists of all twelve children in the school, won second position out of four on their first entry in the Mod, receiving the highest points for their Gaelic - scoring 91 for Gaelic and 87 for music - just one point behind first placed Salen School on Mull. This is a massive achievement and the first time Kilchoan has had a choir in some years.

Hannah Hunter won first in her solo singing class, Innes Ferguson, the only boy in his solo singing class, came first with high praises for his rhythm, Kirstyn Rowantree was first with her poetry recitation out of a class of six, while Katie Cameron got first for poetry. Mhairi MacKenzie also sang solo with her own choice and was fourth out of seven.

They all did very well and have had a fantastic week between this and the inter-school sports.

A big thank you must go to Moira Fisher and Janet Campbell who have been working with the children on the run up to this event. It's the silverware next year!

[Hoping for photos to follow]

Friday, 17 June 2011

Picture of the Day

The leaves burned by salt spray and wind during the recent storm are now falling - in places it looks like autumn. We're waiting to see if those worst affected are going to survive.


This pod of dolphins swam beside Alasdair MacLachlan's boat yesterday, accompanying him from Mingary Pier to Macleans Nose. Alasdair is one of our two local commercial fishermen - his boat, the Sylvia T, has featured on the Diary - his main catch being prawns.

Yesterday morning the sea was almost flat calm, ideal conditions for watching dolphins. At this time of year, there's a good chance of seeing them from a boat. They've been spotted recently from the Kilchoan-Tobermory ferry

The Sound of Mull is famous for the clarity of its water, this being one of the reasons why it is such a popular dive area.

To quote Alasdair - "All this happened before a rib came flying past me." Oh dear!

Despite this, he also comments, "Not a bad day at the office."

Many thanks to Titch and Morven for photos and story.