Wednesday, 31 October 2012

First Winter Snow

Around midday we suddenly noticed that the hills down the Sound of Mull had collected their first snow of the winter.  The wind, having started the day warm from the southwest, had swung into the northwest and, within hours, the temperature had dropped significantly.

Two hours later, with what looked like a hail shower moving down the Sound, the snow had almost disappeared from the tops.  But the change of season into something that definitely resembles winter hadn't deterred a lone yachtsman who can just be seen hurrying south.

It's interesting weather, with bulky cumulus clouds moving across skies which, for reasons that are difficult to explain, seem so much bigger.  They remind us of the huge 'continental' skies we've seen over the prairies of North America and the great savanna lands of Africa.

Oh - and, no, that isn't a small pod of Orcas moving towards Kilchoan Bay, it's our daughter and son-in-law taking another evening swim.  We fear they may secretly be in training for the swim an acquaintance of theirs has just done, across the Corrievreckan.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

An October Swim

Yesterday evening, having climbed Ben Hiant with the rest of us in the morning, our daughter and son-in-law felt that they had not yet had enough exercise, so decided to go for a swim.  The Diary, ever keen to record such events, went down to the beach with them and watched as they set off in the gloom across the Sound of Mull towards Tobermory.

After about twenty minutes they returned.  But, instead of chattering teeth, blue skin and gasps for breath, there was cries of "That's so.... warm!"

Sea temperatures in this area tend to reach their maximum in September and are still high in October.  The current temperature is about 12C, warmer than the daytime air maximum, and certainly higher than the evening air temperature when the two intrepid swimmers left the sea.

Ben Hiant

With the family visiting, a good forecast for the morning, and a very mixed forecast for the rest of their stay, we decided yesterday to climb Ben Hiant.  At 528m, it's West Ardnamurchan's highest point, but it dominates the local scenery and we knew, from our previous climb some 16 years ago, that the views from the top on a clear day are spectacular.

Having two children with us, we approached by the easiest route, from the northeast.  Usually, one can park at the top of the open land called the Bowl, a mile or so short of Camas nan Geall, near the 171m spot height, but the access works for Ardnamurchan Estate's new wind turbine prevented this, which meant we had to park further down the hill, giving us an extra 50m or so to climb.

It isn't a hard climb, more an unremitting slog up what seems like a 45 degree, grassy slope, until the well-worn footpath is reached.  But, as with all climbs in this beautiful part of the world, the higher one gets the more the views open up and the more there is to stop and enjoy.  This view look across the Ardslignish peninsula and Loch Sunart to the isle of Oronsay and Loch na Droma Buidhe to the long finger of Loch Teacuis pointing in to the Morvern mainland.  Camas nan Geall is in the foreground and Loch Sunart goes away to the right.

The path offers an easy if rather muddy route to the summit.  Once on it, and working our way around to the south slope of the mountain, we looked across the summits of Stellachan Dubha and Sron Mhor and the Sound of Mull to the distant Tobermory Bay.  By that time - late morning - the clouds forecast for the afternoon were already rolling in, bringing with them the first showers.

In increasingly dark and dismal conditions, we worked our way up to the trig point at the summit of Ben Hiant, led by the youngest member of the family.... which time it was raining and the clouds were running below us, speeded on by an increasingly sharp northwesterly wind.

Looking out across such a magnificent but veiled view on a dark day is deeply frustrating for anyone who enjoys photography - but we were fortunate as, just as we were about to give up and make our way down, a break in the cloud cover allowed the sun to shine onto Ormsaigmore and Ormsaigbeg.  The high point at right is Beinn na Seilg, with the ridge of Druim na Gearr Leacainn running away to the left and ending in the cliffs of Sron Bheag.  In the distance is the low outline of the Isle of Coll.

We'll just have to climb Ben Hiant again, though we won't leave it another 16 years.

A map of the area is here.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Kilchoan Fire Station Threatened

Kilchoan fire team has a maximum compliment of eleven, but at present has nine members.  We need a full compliment since several firemen work away from the village during the day, and at least four, and preferably five, have to be available in the close locality during working hours to allow the team to respond.

Two new, and very promising recruits went to Fort William on Saturday to undergo tests for their suitability, and both fell at the first hurdle - the fitness test.  Since both are as fit as most of the existing members, and certainly of sufficient fitness to carry out the tasks required of the average fireman in a rural station, we wondered why they, and six others who presented themselves for the tests at Fort William, had failed.  Only one person passed the fitness test, and he faced several more tests.

The answer seems to be that fitness standards have been raised, in part due to the structural changes in Scotland's fire service, which is now a national, rather than a Highland service.  Fitness levels for retained rural firemen now have to be the same as for full-time recruits, say to a fire station in central Glasgow, population almost 600,000.

This is patently ridiculous.  Kilchoan, population just over 100 - and it has to be Kilchoan or locations close to it since firemen have to be able to respond within fifteen minutes to a callout - is highly unlikely to have eleven people who can reach the new fitness standard and are prepared to give the many hours to fulfill modern training requirements.

If the fire service insists on these standards in places like West Ardnamurchan then many, if not all rural stations will close.  If Kilchoan's were to close - which is a frightening thought - then the next nearest is Acharacle, some 40 minutes away, which is already stood down on many days due to.... you've guessed it.... recruitment problems; so we would be relying on Strontian, over an hour away.

This seems terribly like a back-door way of closing rural fire stations.  If it isn't, and incredibly high standards of fitness and intelligence really are needed, why don't they raise the standards even higher?  What about all firemen having to be able to run a mile in under four minutes, and have an IQ of 140+?  That way even Glasgow won't have any firemen.

Top picture: Kilchoan fire appliance at The Ferry Stores.
Bottom picture: Kilchoan fire station is the left hand building.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

More Halloween Pictures

 The children with one of the judges.

Holly Cameron (centre), who won the 'Primary 1 to 3s', with Chloe Curtis (right) who came second.

Many thanks to Ritchie Dinnes for these pictures.

Halloween Party

The Diary and its wife were given the rare and special privilege last night of judging at the annual Halloween party at the Sonachan Hotel.  Having been confidently told by one of the mums who organise this super event that, "all you have to do is judge the winner", we were faced with no less than six competitions to judge, and had to allocate a first, second and third prize in each.

Nothing daunted, we faced the first hurdle, judging the pumpkins, with confidence, but there was such an array of wonderful entries that the Diary felt like leaving immediately.  We finally chose the three impressive winners, 1st: Holly Cameron, 2nd: Alex Cheadle, and 3rd: Nathan Isherwood.

The other five categories were the fancy dress.  The Diary's one attempt to photograph the assembled competitors is shown - getting the small ones to stand still for even a moment seemed impossible - but The Diary hopes to show more pictures taken by better photographers later.

The 'Under-Fives' section was so full of excellent entries that it was almost impossible to choose a winner, but we finally decided that Alex Cheadle deserved first prize, followed by Edie Crosbie and Cailean MacLachlan.  Similarly, in the 'Primary 1 to 3s' section we struggled to make a decision, altering our choice of first prize several times before finally deciding that Holly Cameron deserved it, with Chloe Curtis second and Stuart MacLachlan third.  And in the 'Primary 4 to 7' section, Nathan Isherwood won first, followed by Kirsten Rowantree second, with Innes Ferguson and Cheryl MacIntyre joint third.  Well done to the youngsters, all of whom must have spent hours and hours making their costumes.

Usually it's the teenagers who don't want to participate in events such as these, so it wasn't a surprise when only two entered the 'Teens' section, with Callum Isherwood winning.  But the lowest entry was in the 'Parents' section: not one of the fathers made the effort, most being too busy sorting out the world in the bar, and only one Mum stepped forward, though Gael Cameron (above) was a worthy winner.

The Diary and wife were thoroughly enjoying relaxing after the stress of judging when the evening came to a sudden end when Hughie MacLachlan offered us some chipolata sausages, made from those darling little Kilchoan piglets.

Evening Sailing

This super photo of CalMac's Clansman passing up the Sound of Mull one evening during the week was taken by Anne Jackson from Pier Road.  As she said, "Not a bad view from your front window"!

Many thanks to Anne for sharing the picture.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Shades of Red

Red is one of autumn's colours, particularly in a year like this when we've had a fine October to burn the colour into the landscape.  It seems to have been one of the dominant shades in the sunrises throughout the month - this one is this morning's which, after a sharp frost had been melted off the grass, led on to some bright sunshine.  But, by midday, the clouds had moved in bringing a thin, cold rain.

There's red in the leaves this year - Ardnamurchan's trees have excelled themselves in mimicking the fall colours of North America this October.  The leaves of plants like the blackberry, above, seem to be revelling in unaccustomed reds.

But the most startling reds have been reserved for the berries.  This rowan is just down the road from us, and it has never had such a weight of berries on it before.  There are so many on some of the branches that it's a miracle they haven't broken off.

It's rowan berries that the Fieldfares were enjoying on the other side of the peninsula yesterday, but the Ormsaigbeg harvest is being eaten by our resident starlings, thrushes and blackbirds, and by animals such as the pine martens, who leave little piles of poo in the middle of paths that are full of rowan seeds.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Fieldfare Invasion

It looks like a still from Hitchcock's 1953 film The Birds, but this is a picture taken today from the Kilchoan-Portuairk road looking towards the ridge above Sanna, and the birds are fieldfares.  Estimating the numbers was extremely difficult, but there were at least three flocks of several hundred flying and another roosting in an large area of woodland, but one estimate was that, in all, there might have been a thousand of them.

Fieldfares arrive at this time of year, often in the company of redwings, from Scandinavia.  It may be that the sudden change in the weather, with the wind firmly in the north, has brought them down from a  cold Scandinavia.  While they also eat insects and worms, their main meal at present is the heavy crop of rowan berries.

According to the RSPB site, their numbers build up during the early winter, more so if the winter is severe.  We used to see them in large numbers in fields in East Anglia, and we've seen some here in previous years, but we've never seen anything like this invasion before.

A Sanna Settlement Discovered - 2

The four stone structures - see earlier post here - which form the possible abandoned settlement some 300 metres to the north of the bridge over the Sanna Burn are shown in this photograph.  They stand on a raised platform of land, close against the base of a ridge.  'Building 1' is in good condition but lacks a roof; 'Building 2' is the largest but, with 'Building 3', consists of the bases of their walls only, in the form of large stone blocks.  'Building 4' is by far the most complex but is in a state of ruin.

'Building 4' is the most interesting.  It sits on a small platform contained by an 'External wall'.  At top left of the picture, taken from the slope, this wall runs for some three metres beyond the end of the ruin, suggesting that it may have formed the base of the wall of an earlier building.  At bottom left, a short section of an 'Outer wall' follows the line of this 'External wall'.  Within the building there is a short wall which would have divided the single room.  At the far, south end a small annex was attached, which might have been a byre or a 'Porch'.  It's not clear where the door was.

This map shows the settlement.  It's interesting that all three larger houses run almost north-south - there must be good reason for this.  The north wall of 'Building 3' is formed of a large rock which is 'in situ' in the base of the steep slope down from the ridge.

There is no sign of any of these buildings on any of the historical maps available from the National Library of Scotland.  This suggests that, if they were occupied, it was either for only a short time, for example, when the first families arrived following clearances to the east in the 1850s, or they were abandoned before the first of the accurate OS maps was drawn in 1872.  In contrast, one of the structures in the other settlement to the east, nearer Plocaig, is clearly marked on the 1872 map, connected to Plocaig by a track.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

What a Difference!

We wondered, this morning when we woke, whether we'd been subjected to some sort of time travel.  Were we in the same place as yesterday, a place of balmy sunshine, Caribbean-blue seas and light breezes?  Instead, we had low, grey cloud from the bottom of which the drizzle threatened, at any minute, to change into snowflakes.  Compared to yesterday's healthy 16C, the midday thermometer struggled to reach 11C.

Happily, as the day progressed the clouds cleared and the sun came out; but, the minute it began to set the temperature dropped drastically, so by the time the sun was going down it had plummeted to 5C.  However, our strawberries, which are still, if it can be believed, trying to flower, had seized the opportunity to ripen a bit further - we managed to pick two for supper tonight....

....and the tomatoes in the greenhouse are still doing very well indeed.

Others who are basking in the sunshine include the Ormsaigbeg Buzzard, pictured here by Tony Kidd sitting on the top of the mast of Trevor Potts' Antarctic boat, the Sir Ernest Shackleton.

A Sanna Settlement Discovered - 1

This square, well-built, stone-walled structure lies under a hill some 300m to the north of the bridge that spans the Sanna Burn.  We've walked past it many times and, if we did spare it much thought, probably decided it was some sort of byre for animals or, possibly, a shieling used by Sanna people in the days when the animals were taken away from the main village during the summer months.

The other day we were descending the hill on our way back to Sanna when, for reasons that cannot be explained, our eyes opened.  The stone structure wasn't alone.  In the foreground of this picture is the skeleton of another, much bigger building.  All that remains on the platform upon which it was built are the very large stones which formed the base of walls that might originally have been of stone or turf.

Intrigued, we began to cast around and quickly found two more buildings a few metres to the east and, like the other two, tucked in against the base of the ridge.  As little remains of the building in the foreground of this picture as the first we found, but the one beyond has stone walls which, although they have collapsed, must once have been substantial.

This same ridge against which these lie runs eastwards as far as Plocaig.  About 500m away, along the path that used to join the two villages, the ridge shelters other stone buildings of a similar size and shape, also ruined, described in a post earlier this year, here.  So, between Sanna and Plocaig there were once two other small settlements.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

A Visit to Tobermory

For us, a trip to the dentist is by ferry, to Tobermory.  Normally, an appointment isn't a great experience, but today's visit was made much more pleasurable by it being the most beautiful October day, with hardly a breath of wind to stir the waters of the Sound of Mull.

The Raasay came across with a full load of five cars, having had to leave a sixth behind.  Only one car boarded on this side, and the driver promptly drove off the ferry again when he was told the price of a return trip which, for his vehicle, was £66.

The dentist done, and having three hours to spare, we walked the path that leads northwards from the town towards Tobermory lighthouse.  The path, which sets off up the hill between the RNLI shop and the ferry slipway,  is a good one, though it's probably rather more boggy in wetter weather, and the walk to the lighthouse at a brisk pace takes about half-an-hour.

The view from the early section of the path is across to Morvern.  As we walked, the Tobermory lifeboat was coming back after a trip up Loch Sunart.  In the background is St Columba's Church in the tiny village of Drimnin, built in 1838.

As the path rounded the headland at the entrance to Tobermory Bay, we began to get glimpses of the lighthouse, with Kilchoan, Ormsaigmore and Ormsaigbeg laid out beyond it.

We sat on the foreshore beside the lighthouse to eat our lunch, hoping to see dolphins, otters or seals, but were entertained instead by an RAF Hercules which flew low along the Ardnamurchan shore before turning across the Sound to fly directly overhead.  It was followed a few minutes later by six geese heading south.

Tobermory Bay, when we returned to it, was like glass, and the High Street so warm we sat on a bench looking out across the water and enjoying the sunshine.  But the first high cirrus clouds were beginning to spread across the sky, fore-runners of the cold front which is due to cross us tonight, bringing northerly winds and a drastic reduction in temperature.

This photograph, from Kilchoan Early Bird, shows this evening's sunset, with an autumnal tree and the sky still clear.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

A History of Sanna

From Jon Haylett:

As part of an ongoing attempt to record some of the rich history of West Ardnamurchan, I have begun work on a short history of Sanna.  The information obtained so far is largely from historical maps and census returns.

There is a huge amount missing, so I would be very grateful for comments, criticisms and contributions that can be included. The entry can be easily changed and updated.

The history is here.

Bird News

A family of Buzzards owned Ormsaigbeg.  They nested in the trees around Coimh Lionadh, usually rearing one extremely demanding chick each year.  Last year they produced two and then, at some point during this summer, the whole family seemed to disappear.  We now have at least one Buzzard, pictured, back in this territory, though we're not sure whether it's a member of the old family.

Meanwhile, our family of Blackbirds has disappeared, and we currently have no Blackbirds coming to the bird seed.  There are similar reports of disappearing Blackbirds from elsewhere in the village.  There may be two reasons for this.  Blackbirds moult after the summer breeding season and, to do this safely, they lie low at a time when berries are prolific on the trees - at present, we have a bumper crop on the rowans.  Blackbirds also migrate.  Some British blackbirds move south for the winter, while Scandinavian blackbirds cross to Britain to avoid the harsh northern winter.

Another bird which seems to be lying low at present is the Song Thrush, but we have the usual resident collection of Robins, Dunnocks, Wrens, Collared Doves, Blue Tits, Great Tits, and Goldfinches.

This Coal Tit is now thoroughly established in the garden.  Not only is he battling the other Tits, Chaffinches and House Sparrows for room on the peanut dispensers, he's also discovered that there are sunflower seeds to be had when the bird seed is put out.  For a time he was joined by two other Coal Tits, but they've disappeared.

Some of our other winter visitors, such as the Siskins, still haven't arrived.  Worryingly, because we found one during the summer suffering from trichomonosis, we've seen no Greenfinches for several weeks.  Meanwhile, the seed feeding areas and the peanut dispensers continue to be dominated by Chaffinches and House Sparrows, the latter including Blondie.
The Sparrow Hawk is still very active.  He attacks the small birds by flying low through the neighbouring field and then bouncing over the stone wall into the midst of them.  They panic, and some, in their terror, fly into what looks like blue sky - but is, in fact, the reflection of sky in our window glass.  This Chaffinch killed himself the other day, but gave us the opportunity to take a close-up picture of him, and to marvel at the brilliant colours in his feathers.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Three New Lochans

We were treated to another red sunrise this morning, which is said to be a shepherd's warning of bad weather to come.  The picture shows the view across to Ben Hiant and Maclean's Nose with the 8.00am ferry to Tobermory just leaving Mingary Pier.  The ferry running at present is the Raasay, and as of today she's on the much more restricted winter timetable - see the West Ardnamurchan News site here for all local timetables.

Despite the red sunrise, we had another fine day forecast and no commitments, so we took to the hills again, this time in search of two of the remaining lochans we haven't visited which, together, are called, Lochain Dubha.  They lie in a valley to the south of Grigadale Farm, pictured here with Sgurr nam Meann rising behind the house, and the mountains of Rum in the distance.  We left our car on the road just off the picture to the right, and headed across the flat land drained by the Allt Grigadale, a bad mistake as the going proved very heavy across boggy land further broken by grass tussocks and heather.

For part of the way we walked along the banks of Loch Caorach, the sheep's loch.  The last time we visited this loch was on a miserable day back in May 2011 - blog entry here.  It's a large but shallow loch, with reeds growing all over it.  The picture makes it look as if the loch is part of the sea and the Lighthouse on an isthmus.

Lochain Dubha, the black lochans, the objectives of our walk, lie parallel to each other and are connected by a small burn at the left end, the further lochan draining into the nearer, which then drains northwards towards the Lighthouse.  This picture was taken from the slopes of Beinn nan Ord which, as we were in no hurry to make our way home, we had decided to climb.

From the summit, we looked north to Achosnich and Sanna, and beyond to the island of Eigg and, in the hazy distance, the Cuillins of Skye.  The hill we climbed yesterday is at the right.

Looking northeast from the summit of Beinn nan Ord in the direction of the Sonachan Hotel we could see another lochan.  This was also one we hadn't visited so, with plenty of time on our hands and the weather continuing fine, we decided to divert to it our way home.

It's a pretty little lochan tucked into a fold in the hillside, but it's another of our local features which, sadly, is not named on the OS map.  Beyond it, in the valley of the Allt Garbh dhalach - which means something like the stream of the rough field by the river - is some deciduous woodland, and it was towards this that....

....a small group of red deer hinds fled when they saw us descending the hill.  Other than a stag which we'd disturbed a little earlier in the walk and a couple of crows, they were the only wildlife we saw all day.