Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Long, Winding Road

As each year passes we look back down a longer, windier road. The twists and turns of this year's road seem to have been harder than usual for this community. Many people, in particular, remain very worried about what will happen in February when Jessie Colquhoun, after some 35 years' dedicated service, retires and the NHS reorganises our medical services. Other services are threatened, including our ferry to Tobermory, and there is talk of Kilchoan fire station being downgraded. With the nation's disposable incomes falling, Ardnamurchan is having to work harder every year to attract visitors; and, while some prices for livestock have gone up, costs are spiralling, so maintaining incomes from crofting is a hard battle. On top of all this, the weather has been unusually unkind, with a storm as late as May, and a succession of lightning strikes and storms in December.

Despite this, the cheerful resilience of those who live in this remote place never ceases to amaze me. Even when we seem to have had more than our fair share of 'Kilchoan sunshine', and the world seems a grey place, there's never a shortage of smiles and kind words. And we are blessed with the visitors who come here, many of whom return year after year, never tiring of this place and its people.

As the pages of The Diary witness, West Ardnamurchan's beauty, its archaeology, history, wildlife, land- and seascapes offer unending opportunities for pleasure and leisure. Over the year, Gill and I have walked miles across its rugged landscapes and along its wonderfully varied coastline. Ardnamurchan's openness, its emptiness, the opportunities it offers to walk for a whole day and see no-one, are rare commodities in this crowded world. We feel very privileged.


Taken from the summit of Creag an Airgid, the hill of silver, the photograph looks northwestwards along the winding road to Sanna. The ridge in the near distance which the road so carefully skirts is Sidhean Mor (or Sithean Mor), the big hillock, and the burn which runs in the same direction as the road is Allt Uamha na Muice, which means, as well as The Diary can translate it, the stream of the cave of the pig. Beyond the tiny village of Achnaha, visible in a patch of green grass, the stream changes its name, becoming Allt Sanna, entering the sea at the northern end of Sanna's white-sand beaches.

In the middle distance, to the left of the road, is Meall Sanna, Meall meaning a round hill, while to the right are a line of hills, all part of the great ring dyke, of which the highest is Meall Clach an Daraich, the rounded hill of stone and oak. The island in the distance is Muck, with the coastline of Rhum just visible under the low cloud beyond.

This is one of about sixty photos taken on an October day when we climbed Creag an Airgid. The weather was cloudy, with a hint of rain in the breeze, and most of the pictures were disappointing. It wasn't until it was viewed on the computer screen that the almost map-like quality of this one became apparent.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Rare Fish Found at Sanna

Beachcombing is always fun after a gale or two - one never knows what one will find - and Sanna beach must be on of the best places to enjoy this pastime, even if it's in sleety rain driven along by a stiff southeaster. Today's walk started well, with the first discovery on the grass just at the back of the beach, near the mouth of the Sanna Burn.

It didn't take long to identify this fish, even though it's not on the normal list of British sea fish, as The Diary has seen the species in rather warmer waters. It's a trigger fish, probably the grey trigger fish, Balistes capriscus. If the identification is correct, it's a long way from home. The species is normally found along the western coast of Africa, from the Mediterranean southwards, and along the eastern seaboard of the Americas, from Nova Scotia to Argentina. There are, however, reports of the fish both alive and dead in British waters - read here for a note about a dead specimen being washed up on Lewis in 2000, and here for more details. Quite why it was on the grass remains a mystery, though it was probably put there by a passer-by.

Our local fishermen should watch out for live specimens as it has a reputation for attacking people, the bite being very painful. It's also very good to eat.

We've found sea potatoes at Sanna before, usually at low tide on the sand in the bay, but a number of unusually large specimens were scattered along the upper beach, probably dug out of their burrows by the storm waves. The sea potato, Echinocardium cordatum, is a type of sea urchin. When it's alive it's covered with what looks like hair but is actually fine spines. The specimen on the left is about as large as they come, at about 9cm. More about sea potatoes here.

Meanwhile, on land the search for breaks along the power lines continues. A Scottish and Southern helicopter was working along the flanks of Meall Sanna as we walked back to the car, the machine passing over the village before heading off towards Achnaha, where electricity was finally restored about 6.00pm yesterday evening.

Good News

There's good news for pig lovers at the beginning of the new year: this end of the peninsula boasts many fewer pigs in residence since the Friday before Christmas, when Dave Cash sent a sow and 28 piglets across to Mull. Sadly, he still has four left over here, busy making bacon. Many thanks to Dave who, with his wife Stella, runs Meall mo Chridhe.

Meanwhile, Hughie's horrible ten have been relocated into the heart of Kilchoan, into a field where an accident with a fence might mean the destruction of countless beautiful gardens on the Old Golf Course development. The Diary can't understand how Hughie sleeps peacefully at night.

Good news, too, from Portuairk, that village at the centre of the known universe, which bore the brunt of Wednesday's weather. Very little damage is reported, possibly because, if damage was there to be done, it happened during the 8th December blow. Many thanks to Donna Cameron for this picture taken during the height of the storm.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Clearing Up

After the storm, there's the clearing-up. These days, the most time-demanding problems always seem to relate to electronics and the internet. Last time we lost a router and two telephones. This time, we're struggling with our broadband speeds which have dropped drastically following the recent power cuts, from a very acceptable download speed of 4 Mb/s to 0.23 Mb/s. The Diary has spent a long time on the telephone to India, talking to a very nice man who finally decided that the problem must be at our local exchange. He has sent a message to an engineer who will fix it over the next 48 hours - hopefully, he or she lives in Scotland rather than India, or perhaps such fixings can be done from half a world away. Meanwhile, The Diary won't be uploading pictures of more than 500 Kb.

Anne Jackson has cheered us up with this super picture of the Sanna beaches taken during the storm, during a lull when enough sunshine appeared to spark a rainbow.

More Gale Pictures

These photographs, taken by Anne Jackson yesterday at Portuairk (above) and the Lighthouse, are a brave attempt to capture the fury of yesterday's storm but they cannot show the way the wind seemed to flatten even the largest waves, and then whipped their tops off and threw the spray in a swirling horizontal curtain across sea and land. The sound was eerie, a wild, banshee screaming, particularly where the wind passed through the branches of deciduous trees. The Raptor, who lives on the relatively protected south side of the peninsula, recorded a gust of 109 mph. The anemometer at the Lighthouse, where speeds would have been even higher, is still not working.

Power losses along the west coast of Scotland were far fewer than for the 8th December storm: this morning's news reported that only 1,000 homes were affected overnight, amongst which those on West Ardnamurchan were, inevitably, included. Serious questions have to be asked of Scottish and Southern Energy about why it is that we suffer so badly.

The power started going on and off around 12.30 yesterday afternoon and finally died at about 2.00pm. It came back at 11.00 this morning in Kilchoan, but it's still off along the north side of the peninsula. They have been told that they will have to wait until 6.00pm this evening for reconnection.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Gale: First Pictures

First pictures of today's gale come from 'Kilchoan Early Bird'. This one shows waves breaking against the CalMac pier at Mingary.

Sadly, this one, of the two creel boats kept in a bay near Glen More, owned and worked by two Kilchoan fishermen, comes with a caption:

Soon for sale: two west coast fishing boats.
Reason: gales.

Yet Another Gale

There's a full southwesterly gale blowing at the moment, but it doesn't affect us too much tucked, as we are, into the southeast-facing hillside of Ormsaigbeg. It's due to go round more into the northwest, when it'll find its way round the end of the hill - and then we'll feel it. The weather is predicted to deteriorate further as the day goes on, with the highest winds coming in during the afternoon.

The Way the Wind Blows

Many of the trees growing along our coastlines are asymmetrical, if not always so extremely as the two shown in these photographs. The one pictured above stands beside the track leading east from the tiny settlement of Ockle, the second beside the road that runs from Achnaha to Sanna.

Geography books state that the direction in which they bend is controlled by the prevailing wind. After the gale we had in May, the reason may not be quite as simple. Then, the leaves on the windward side of deciduous trees were burned by the wind and the salt spray it carried. In some cases, the leaves died altogether, and the branches remained bare throughout the summer season.

So it may be less the direction of the prevailing wind than the direction of the late spring or early-summer gales which control their growth by killing the branches that face up-wind.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Bird News

Following Nan MacLachlan's recent discovery of this bird ring in a field in Ormsaigbeg (post here), we haven't heard back from Euring but Diary reader Allan Cowan has written in to say that its shape suggests the ring came from one of the Auk family such as the guillemots and razorbills (more details on British auks here). An extract from the Ringers' Manual which Allan sent says, "Auks rest on the rear edge of their tarsi while on rocks, and as a result the ring number on conventional rings would wear rapidly and the ring would be weakened. Special auk rings are designed so that, when fitted correctly, a flat area of the ring with no inscription is at the back of the tarsus and the inscription is at the side." Many thanks to Allan for this.

A couple of days ago we were distressed to find this greenfinch on our terrace wall showing all the symptoms of the trichomonosis disease which killed many of the species a couple of years ago, and from which they were supposed to be recovering. His feathers were fluffed up, he was obviously disorientated, and he was hopping around trying to feed but not making much of a job of it. Look closely at the picture - he has a ring on his right leg. More about trichomonosis here.

This blackbird was hopping around in a Kilchoan field this morning. Perhaps it was the Christmas high winds which removed his tail feathers.

A Lull in the Storms

The wind dropped early yesterday evening, but not before we'd had a bad moment when the power went off at about 4.15 in the afternoon, fortunately for only a minute. The sky cleared overnight, the temperature fell to a chilly 5C, and the wind moved into the southeast and dropped to a light breeze. By 6.30 this morning a blanket of high cloud was heaving up from the southwest: this picture, taken just after 9.00am looking across Kilchoan Bay, shows the last of the disappearing sky. The forecast is for winds of over 50mph by midday tomorrow (force 9), gusting into the high 60s (force 11).

With continuing high rainfall - we had 16mm on Christmas Day and another 6mm yesterday - the crofters' flocks are struggling. There's no grass growing and the fields are trampled to mud, so they're subsisting on pellets and silage.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Gales Continue

After a day indoors yesterday - as predicted, a gale blew all day, bringing 14mm of rain with it - we drove out towards the lighthouse and parked our car near Grigadale farm. The weather hadn't changed; if anything, todays' tempest is more furious than yesterday's, though not as destructive as the storm of 8th December. Walking along the road towards the lighthouse we weren't too badly knocked around until we approached the entrance to the Visitor's Centre, when all hell seemed to be let loose.

The bay on the left was a maelstrom, with huge waves breaking on Dubh Rubha Mor, the aptly named 'great black headland', and yellowy balls of spume rocketing across the road. The wind stood in the southwest, so the heaviest waves were concentrated on the far side of the bay.

The western front of the point was also taking a severe beating, spray from the breaking waves passing right across the visitors' car park some 30m above.

The lighthouse itself was relatively protected, particularly as the tide was low by the time we reached it, but walking round it was eerie: the wind howled as it passed around the tower and through its various aerials and antennae.

The bay to the north lay in the lee of the gale so the waves weren't as spectacular, but the blue-green sea seemed beaten flat by the force of the wind. By this time the gale was building again, and we had to fight to prevent ourselves being blown off our feet as we made our way back towards the Cafe.

Winds are predicted to veer into the northwest and drop tonight, with the temperature falling from its current balmy 10C to 5 or 6C. A fair day is forecast for tomorrow, but Wednesday looks as if it'll be bringing yet more stormy weather.

Greylag Geese

Greylag Geese on the marsh at the back of Kilchoan Bay.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Christmas Weather

Looks like we're going to enjoy lashings of Kilchoan sunshine bathing the place over the Christmas holiday. Today we're promised sunny rays pushed on by winds at force 6 gusting to force 8, tomorrow we're expecting our turkey and Christmas pudding to be helped down by something between force 8 and force 10, and Boxing Day looks like cold mince pies - the electricity is bound to be off under the sheer weight of sunshine by then - with liquid sunlight pouring past at force 7 to force 9.

Fortunately the village is, as always, well fortified with liquids of a quite different variety so probably won't care what the weather's doing outside or whether the water also goes off. The Diary, not be a great fan of anything from the New World, will be snuggling down with a couple of bottles of very naughty St Emilion. Nectar.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Threat to Ferry Service

As if the problems we face with the proposed changes to our nursing service were not enough, there is now a threat to the Tobermory-Kilchoan ferry service. Please read full details on the West Ardnamurchan News & Information site, here.

Pine Marten at Night

This video was taken at night by 'Kilchoan Early Bird' in woodland near Glen More. It was filmed using a fixed camera triggered by a PIR sensor.

Wandering Ardnamurchan Albatross - Episode 2

In his second post (see earlier one here) Trevor Potts writes from Antarctica ...

We set sail for our fourth trip to Antarctica from Ushuaia at 6 pm (9 pm GMT) on 23rd of December and if we have a good crossing should arrive for a landing in the South Shetland Islands on the afternoon of Christmas Day. Boxing Day will be just into the edge of the Weddell Sea on the east side of the peninsula and hopefully a landing on the northern tip of the continent at Brown Bluff. Brown Bluff looks like sand but is a few hundred feet thick layer of yellowish volcanic ash. Next stop a long overnight sail down the west side of the Peninsula for morning and afternoon landings on one or other of the many islands. I think we have a visit scheduled to Palmer Station, a United States Base run by their National Science Foundation, where we will see a little of the research undertaken there.

We will also attempt a passage through the narrow and beautiful Lemair Channel - we have been thwarted by ice in the channel during the last three trips. Then a long sail north overnight back to the South Shetland Islands for our fourth and final day in Antarctica where the ship sails through the narrow entrance of Neptune’s Bellows into the steaming caldera of Deception Island, a still active volcano. In the afternoon we will have a landing on one of the Islands to say a final farewell to the Chinstrap penguins before our two day sail back across the Drake Passage. We should arrive at our anchorage sometime on New Years Eve where we will have our champagne cocktail reception and farewell dinner of lobster tails or beef tenderloin. (it’s a hard life but someone has to do it).

We are scheduled to re-fuel on New Years day but we are trying to convince the Captain to be certain. We should get back on the afternoon of the 31st or we may be stuck for 24 hours unable to sail. The staff can then party in the Irish Bar ashore - but we will have to wait and see what happens.

One more trip after that and I will be flying home via Buenos Aires 10/11 January.

Trevor runs the Ardnamurchan Camp Site and Study Centre, website here.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Lights are Going Out

All households yesterday received a circular from NHS Highland and the Scottish Ambulance Service outlining the 'model' for the nursing service which we will be receiving as from February. It is a frightening document because it demonstrates how out-of-touch with reality they appear to be.

If we do not, as a community, act decisively, now, then the lights will be going out in Kilchoan Medical Centre. Please see today's post on the 'West Ardnamurchan News & Information' site, here.

Today's Sunshine

Today's ray of sunshine was spotted briefly over Tobermory at 10.07am.

Wandering Ardnamurchan Albatross

The 'Wandering Ardnamurchan Albatross' - better known as Trevor Potts who runs the Kilchoan camp site - has sent us an account of his recent weeks as a guide on a cruise ship in the Antarctic. Here is 'Episode 1' -

We have just returned to the Beagle Channel and are now at anchor awaiting the pilot to take us the 60 miles up the channel to Ushuaia. We had one of the smoothest and sunniest crossing of the Drake Channel I have had in ten years and have arrived very early so we now have an easy day in a sheltered anchorage until our scheduled plot arrives at about midnight.

Most of our passengers are elderly, age range about 70-85 years old with only a small number under 60 this makes small boat operations and landings on wet slippery boulders a challenge. Walking through mud consisting mainly of guano and deep snow is no better.

During the first two trips we had very good killer whale sightings, one pod was over 20 strong spread out around the ship at the south end of the Gerlache Strait. Minke whales and Humpback whales have been scarce with only fleeting sightings in the distance. They do tend to be more numerous and inquisitive later in the season when they are well fed after their long migratory fast. During their (southern) winter migration north to warmer tropical waters to breed they do not feed for about six months. When their calves are fat enough to stand the cold they migrate south to feed on the abundance of krill that feeds on the algae growing on the underside of the sea ice. No sea ice, no krill, very few whales, seals or penguins.

One thing that has surprised us this year are a number of bird species much further south than their usual feeding range. There are few birds that actually bread south of the Antarctic Convergence (that mixed band of water a few miles wide where the cold Antarctic waters mix with slightly warmer water from the north). This convergence zone is the biologic boundary of Antarctica and many bird species feed around it especially the various Albatross species which do not usually venture very far south of the convergence.
Birds breading south of the convergence on the South Shetland Island and the Antarctic Peninsula are, Blue eyed Shag, Cape Petrel, Skua, Kelp Gull, Wilsons Storm Petrel, Snow Petrel, Giant Petrel and of course a few Penguins, Emperor (to far south rarely seen in the Peninsula area) Gentoo, Adelie, Chinstrap and a very small number of Macaroni.

On the Bransfield Strait way south of the convergence we saw four Light Mantled Sooty Albatross (pictured above) flying together around the ship. It is very unusual to have so many together and so far south and for them to come close to the ship. They spent some hours late in the evening using the updraft from the windward side of the ship to gain height as they circled and swooped down to the waves searching for krill. At some stage during the trip we also had a Black Browed Albatross hundreds of miles south of its normal range. Both birds breed on the sub Antarctic Islands north of the convergence, such as South Georgia.

Trevor runs the Ardnamurchan Campsite & Study Centre, website here.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Ring

A couple of days ago The Diary was given this bird ring by Nan MacLachlan. She had found it in a field in Ormsaigbeg, still attached to a leg. She had kindly removed it from the emaciated and rather smelly remains and wrapped it in a polythene bag. Sadly, the bird was so decomposed she couldn't identify it.

After immersing the ring in a Dettol solution, it was seen to carry the code R73 660, and, in much smaller letters, BRIT. MUSEUM, LONDON S.W.7. Two minutes on the British Museum's website, using the search phrase 'bird ring', led to a link to the Euring site, where Euring stands for the European Union for Bird Ringing. Reporting is easy - there's a standard form to fill out, and an automated response arrived within minutes.

Euring co-ordinates and promotes bird ringing across Europe, its main task being to collect reports of the finding of bird rings. It's good to think that the information we've given may help researchers to understand more about a species which visits or is resident on Ardnamurchan, but it'll be interesting to see if anyone gets back to us to tell us what the bird was, and whether Nan found anything particularly unusual.

The Euring site is here.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011


Please read latest (bad) news about the Nurses on the West Ardnamurchan News & Information site, here.

Winter Wildlife

We see far more of the local wildlife in winter than at any other time of year. Perhaps it is that they are roaming further afield in search of food, perhaps they venture closer to human habitation when there are fewer people around; perhaps also, with the closing in of the daylight hours, they have less time in which to hunt.

A week ago we saw this luxuriantly bearded fox near Swordle....

....but he didn't hang around.

Walking down to the shop this morning we stopped to watch an otter swimming westwards along the Ormsaigbeg shore. Two others then appeared going in the opposite direction, one larger than the other. When they met, both parties turned around and hurried away in opposite directions. Sadly, the light was so poor a photograph wasn't possible.

We continue to see eagles over Ormsaigbeg. While some are flying along the ridge line of Druim na Gearr Leacainn - we take these to be golden eagles - we're also seeing an eagle fly low along the coast. He's beneath us, so we've been able to see the white tail feathers of a sea eagle.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Snow on Rhum

Looking north from the Sanna road across Allt Sanna to the ruins of Plocaig, the dark outline of Muck, and the snow-covered mountains of Rhum.

Small Sanna Treasures

We walked at Sanna yesterday intending, in a mixture of rain and sleet showers blown on by a searching wind, to exercise quickly on the Sanna beaches before returning home for a large bowl of home-made cabbage soup, but turned southwards instead, climbing to the two large cairns on the hills which run east-west between the Sanna Burn and the sea.

But, as so often happens, we strayed further, down to what we call the shelly beach, and found ourselves children again, hunting through the coarser shell debris for treasures hidden in the sand.

The beach faces eastwards, across a wide bay towards the Cat's Face, a cliff which ends in Rubha Carrach. Above it towers Rubha an Duin Bhain, a promontory crowned by what we've always taken to be a Viking fort - in our imaginations, the Norsemen pulled their longboats up onto this beach, and tilled the coarse soils at its back.

The beach sand here is in total contrast to those which run along the south side of the bay, which are formed of a hard sand ideal for beach cricket. This stuff is gritty, full of the shattered remains of sea urchins, mussels, limpets, whelks, cones and....

....these little treasures.

They're a cowrie, the European or Spotted Cowrie, Trivia monacha. It's common in west coast waters, but isn't easy to find as the adult is only a centimetre long. The younger forms lack the three spots of the adult shell. There's another, close relative which also inhabits northern waters, Trivia arctica, but the differences are so slight the two shells are almost indistinguishable.

The Diary has a particular affection for cowries. As children, living on the coast of East Africa, we used to search the reefs for slightly larger relatives, the money cowrie, which grew to about 1.5cm, and the exotic leopard or tiger cowrie, a giant of great beauty which sometimes exceeded 10cm.

A map of the area is here.

Sunday, 18 December 2011


Sunrise today - 9.02am.

Snow Bunting

These pictures come from the camera of The Raptor, who spotted this lone snow bunting feeding along the road which goes down to the Bay House at Swordle.

As far as The Diary knows, this is the first time a snow bunting has been seen at this end of the peninsula, although it's well within the area marked on the RSPB's map as the species' winter range - see website here.

Ockle Point - 2

The day we walked to Ockle Point (see previous post here) the sea was like steel, the only movement the slow suck of the waves as they washed around the cliffs and bays along this heavily indented coast. This view looks east towards the distant hills of Moidart, the furthest headland being Rubha Aird Druimnich the high, ridged headland.

One of the nearer bays contains a building that was once someone's home. The right-hand side was the dwelling house, the nearer side a byre in which animals would have been kept at night and through the long winter. It seems to have everything that was needed for a simple life: a small stream for water and washing, land for tilling, plenty of rough grazing for animals, bracken for bedding, and the sea for fish and kelp for fertilizer. And all sorts of unexpected materials would have been washed up by the sea including, during the Second World War, an unexploded German mine. After it had been reported, two people, a man and a woman, arrived to defuse it, after which they set fire to the contents. The mine burned red hot for three days.

There's plenty of evidence that the people who lived here worked the sea. In at least three places on the foreshore the boulders have been cleared to form places where boats could be pulled up across the shingle, the best being sheltered by a line of rocks clearly visible in the picture.

The land belongs to the Cameron brothers, who own three comfortable letting houses at Ockle which offer unsurpassed walking; website here. Many thanks to Dochie for information about the bay, and to Moira Fisher for help with Gaelic translations.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Power Cuts

Ten days on from the 'great storm', we are still plagued by power cuts. According to our records, the tally so far is -

Thurs 8th 10.45am - Sat 10th 8.30pm
Sun 11th 1.00am - 12.00 midday
Tue 13th 2.45pm - 7.45pm
Wed 14th 6.20am - 6.40am
Thurs 15th 1.00pm - 5.15pm
Sat 17th six cuts between 5.15am and 10.00am

....making as total of almost 80 hours.

These are the Kilchoan times. Achnaha, Sanna, Portuairk, Aschosnich and the lighthouse have been off today from about 5.30am. There are a number of problems down their line, including another burnt-out pole, which the engineers are working to sort out.

The local electricity board, Scottish Hydro, are asking people to report power poles which are flashing a red light, and indication that there is a problem. It also helps them if people report a cut as soon as it happens. Their emergency number is 0800 300 999.

No-one is blaming the engineers for our problems - they have, as always, done a super job, for which we are very grateful. But, as a group of small communities, we are in the relatively unusual position of being entirely dependent on the single line which comes down the peninsula. If it is cut, there is no other way of diverting power to us. In view of this, Scottish Hydro needs to ensure that the system is as robust as possible, and last Thursday's storm suggests it isn't.

Scottish Hydro also needs to look at its lines of communication to our villages. Warnings were issued for the cut on Thursday 15th, which was to repair the first burnt-out pole. The Diary heard the news from a builder from the Borders who'd been told by someone who lives in Cambridge. Surely phone calls to the Ferry Stores, the Estate, and the two hotels, who can pass the word on, would do the job rather better.