Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Four Sanna Croft Houses

The township of Sanna, almost at the most westerly point on the British mainland, is a very dispersed settlement.   Other than the building at bottom left in this picture, which is a church, and the large waterworks building towards the top right, all are dwelling houses.  The buildings in the foreground are grouped as Upper Sanna; those in the distance are Lower Sanna.

For over a hundred and fifty years, the system of farming here has been crofting, whereby each family has a house, an area of land which the family works, and rights for a number of animals on the common grazings.  Traditionally, in Sanna, the animals kept were cattle; these days it is largely sheep.  The number of crofts has recently been reduced to six, and areas which were once croft land have been included in the common grazings.  Only four of the dwellings are in use all year round, two by crofting families.   Many of what were croft houses are now holiday homes, but some of the old croft houses have been abandoned.  Look carefully at the photograph above, for in the foreground are four of these abandoned houses.  With their walls built of unrendered local stone, they have merged into the landscape.

In this picture they are marked 1 - 4.  Until the reorganisation of the croft land, they all belonged to families who once lived in Sanna.  As the Diary's History of Sanna (here) explains, many of these families were originally moved here from about 1853 by Sir James Riddell when land further to the east was cleared for sheep farms.

MEM Donaldson, who came to know Sanna well from the 1920s onwards, and later built the big house called Sanna Bheag, described Sanna as 'a characteristic crofting township of twenty houses that, scattered with a delightful disregard for any ordered plan, nestled in the shelter of the rounded crags that form the landward boundary'

This is the croft house marked '1'.  It's built in the traditional style, with a single entrance at the front and a window either side.  MEM Donaldson described Sanna's houses as being of the 'but and ben' type - that is, one room was a living room (the 'but') the other the bedroom ('ben').  They had a roof of reeds through which poked a chimney formed from a cone of thatch, most had floors of beaten earth, and all were 'scrupulously clean and tidy, like their owners'.

The second croft house, while of the same design, has a building at the back which was probably a byre for animals.  What is so impressive about these buildings is the care with which they were built, and the size of some of the rocks used; it must have taken more than one man to lift or otherwise manoeuvre them into place.

The third is tucked into a small glen which narrows as it ascends the hill, formed a gorge down which a small burn runs, so the croft had a supply of water right beside its door.  It has two outbuildings and a walled area which may have been used either for gathering animals or as a garden.  The byre with its corrugated iron roof has obviously been used until quite recently.

This is the fourth, which has a substantially-built outhouse beside it.  MEM Donaldson wrote that the average rent for a Sanna croft, which was paid to the landlord, was £1 12s 6d yearly.  This included a share, or 'souming' of the common grazing.  The community's crofting affairs were overseen by a grazing committee of three crofters, elected every three years, of whom 'one acted as Clerk to the Land Court'.

The four crofts described are all clearly marked on the 1897 OS 6" map of the area - the full map is at the National Library of Scotland website, here.  The only changes that have occurred since then are that croft 1 seems to have lost the small building marked as attached to its northern end, the building marked with the red arrow has disappeared, and further houses have been built nearer to the track.

Reference: 'Further Wanderings - Mainly in Argyll', MEM Doanldson

Monday, 29 April 2013

A History of Kilmory

'A History of Kilmory' is the latest in a series of histories of the townships of West Ardnamurchan.  These histories are accessible from the right-hand column of the Diary, under the heading 'W. Ardnamurchan Histories'.

Kilmory is a small settlement on Ardnamurchan's beautiful north coast.  It's typical of many crofting townships in that the houses are dispersed along the top of the croft fields.  But, like many crofting townships, it has a far, far older history which goes back centuries before crofting was ever invented.  Finding this history is difficult because there are so few records, but there are old maps which are a rich source of evidence.

All these histories are works in progress.  If anyone can help by suggesting other sources of information, I would be very grateful - and email address is towards the bottom of the right-hand column.

I would like to record my particular thanks to Mary Khan, Joey MacKenzie and Donald Houston for their help with this history.

'A History of Kilmory' is here.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

An Ordinary Walk

Ben Hiant in the distance
On a damp and overcast Sunday in early spring, with a few flakes of snow drifting in the air, we set out for a walk, choosing as our starting point the dump - or, as it should be termed, the Community Recycling Centre.  We headed west, towards the foothills of Beinn na Seilg, not with any intention of climbing the hill as neither the weather nor our mood was conducive to anything so energetic, but because we hadn't explored this area.

It was rough going, even at this, the best time of year for walking in the hills.  We saw remarkably little of any consequence, although we did put up three woodcock.  Our only company was a few sheep, who could hardly be bothered to look up from their foraging.

We turned north, working our way along the tops of the ridges as these made the easiest walking, until we saw Lochan an Aodainn, with Beinn na h-Imeilte behind it. Aodainn in Gaelic means face, visage our countenance, which doesn't make much sense in relation to a lochan.

Sonachan Hotel with Achosnich in the distance
But from the low ridge on the other side of the lochan we looked down onto the Sonachan Hotel, and this may offer another idea to explain the lochan's name.  According to old maps, such as the Ordnance Survey's First Series, there was a small settlement on the Sonachan site, called Aodann.

It seemed a very colourless walk, although it's always wonderful to be wandering across this empty but beautiful landscape, until we looked at it in a quite different way.  We were crossing some bare rock exposed on the summit of a low knoll, when we looked at our feet. 

Growing there was a brilliantly coloured, exotic garden of lichen, noted earlier in this post.  To fully appreciate it, we'd have had to have been rather smaller - the picture shows an area about 3cm across.  It made us realise how much we must miss as we tread thoughtlessly across this miniature world.

An interactive map of the area is here.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Ardnamurchan Ammonites

At several locations along West Ardnamurchan's shores there are outcrops of Jurassic-aged sedimentary rocks, and in some of these are to be found yet more of our local wonders - spectacular fossil ammonites.  To the untrained eye, their remains are no more than strange patterns in the rock, but these are representative of a hugely successful mollusc group which became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous.

Ammonites thrived in warm, shallow tropical seas.  Some 150 million years ago, the continental crust which was to become Scotland lay on the edge of a warm ocean, the Tethys - the map here shows the world in Jurassic times.

We would know relatively little about the ammonites were it not for a rare, living mollusc found mainly in the eastern Pacific, the Nautilus (above, and see earlier Diary post here).  Early versions of the Nautilus gave rise to the ammonites, which thrived through the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, at about the same time as the dinosaurs were ruling the land.  But, like the dinosaurs, the ammonites did not survive the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction while the evolutionarily very conservative Nautilus family did.

Ammonites, like the Nautilus, seem to have hunted near the sea's surface during the night, and sunk into its dark depths during the day.  But they were preyed upon by swimming reptiles so, to avoid them, they evolved to sink deeper and deeper, into water which was under huge pressure and which, if they hadn't developed some remarkable features, would have crushed their shells.

Nautilus had concave transverse partitions to strengthen the thin shell wall, the equivalent of the modern submarine's bulkheads, as can be seen in the above photograph.  Ammonites went one better, crinkling the partition where it met the outer shell to give it more support against the huge outside pressures, using an idea which humans, belatedly, use in corrugated cardboard.

The crinkling effect can be seen in this picture, which shows part of an ammonite where the chambers have been infilled with sediment, preserving the intricate shape of the partitions.

Some of the West Ardnamurchan ammonites are, by ammonite standards, huge, being a good 30cm or more in diametre.  The Diary has only seen larger in the oolites of Portland Bill in Dorset.

Photo of Nautilus courtesy of J Baecker, link here.
Photo of sectioned Nautilus, Jose Luis Navarro Lizandra,link here.

Friday, 26 April 2013

People of The Basin

The Basin, as its name suggests, is the bowl of land which lies on the right side of the B8007 a mile or so after the traveller has passed Camas nan Geall heading towards Kilchoan.  It's an area of land which has interested us because, even looking from the road, it was evidently extensively worked, with a networks of ditches and miles of substantial, if now largely fallen and overgrown dykes (stone walls).  But the question which rattled round in our heads was, "Where did the people who worked these fields live?  Did they live in places like Bourblaige or Camas nan Geall and walk a mile or so to work each day?"  This seemed unlikely as farmers prefer to live reasonably near their fields.

A clue to the answer came from this, the first OS map of Scotland, the 1856 First Series - The Basin is ringed.  It clearly shows a track running up the eastern side of The Basin.  The present road follows the track marked on the western side.  These tracks converge at the northern end of The Basin, where there must have been a major crossroads, with two roads running north, one to pass each side of Loch Mudle, while the branch which headed northwestwards was the 'main road' along the north flank of Beinn na h-Urchrach to Kilchoan.

So we set out on a cold and grey winter's day to walk The Basin's eastern track.  For most of the way it was fairly easy to follow, though there are places where the dykes have fallen across it.  And we quickly found the answer to our question: the people did live next to their fields, many of their houses are still there to be found, and the track existed for them to use.

In looking for early settlements we have to bear in mind that the house walls of most ordinary people's homes were not built of stone but of peat, wood rafters, and a roof of turfs with a heather or rush thatch - and, as a consequence, will long ago have disappeared.  In this, out first exploration of the area, we found at least four stone structures, none of which were marked on the 1856 or earlier maps.  The above picture shows the remains of a typical 'black house'....

....and here's another.  This one was in a particularly fine position, as the burn which tumble down the steep face on the eastern side of the Basin have all been channelled by these farmers so they didn't flood the fields, and one pretty burn passed by this family's front door.

It was too cold to spend much time on an extensive search, so we hurried along the track towards Camas nan Geall, but there must be other stone-built houses and, hidden in the soil, many more long-decayed peat houses.  In due course we'll return to find more of the stone ones.

There's no sign of these houses on the earliest map we have of the area which shows individual buildings, William Roy's map of 1747-55, so the settlement must have died before that. But this is further evidence of what we have long suspected - that this end of the Ardnamurchan peninsula once had a very large population living off the land.  Then the great diaspora of Highland clanspeople began.

The OS First Series maps are here.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Ardnamurchan Coast

These pictures were taken during the long sunny spell that made this spring so exceptional.  The sea was still, the air crystal clear, the light wonderful.  This was Ardnamurchan at its most calm and beautiful.

The first was taken at Sanna while scrambling across the barnacle-covered rocks near Sanna Point.

This picture of a pool of water left behind by the falling tide, also taken at Sanna, gives some idea of the care with which the sea sculpts the sand as it retreats after high tide.  Disturbing these pristine shapes seems almost blasphemous.

Beaches are tucked into strange places.  The beach at Bay McNeil is caught between Eileann Carrach and the mainland.  It's a beach which constantly changes its profile: this year, it seems flattened.

The beach at Bay McNeil would make a perfect pitch for beach cricket, a game best played on a rapidly rising tide, when the fielders in the outfield end up swimming.

The beach at Rubha an Duin Bhain is cut off from the wide bay that separates it from Carraig by a mass of boulders.  It woudl have been an ideal beach for the Vikings to have dragged their longboats up onto, but they'd have wrecked them on the rocks.

This is the westernmost of the bays that run along the shoreline of Portuairk.  Unlike the others, it has no sand to make it fun for children.  It is, somehow, a dark bay, a place of seaweed and the slow swirl of the waves.  The cumulus clouds stand over Rum, with the little island of Muck in front of it.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

A Walk to Corrievullin

Corrievullin is a deserted clachan.  The tiny settlement was cleared in the years around 1828, its houses destroyed, and its people moved to other clachans - the Swordles, Ormsaigbeg.  Its name means corrie or hollow of the mill, so the best way to reach it is to walk down the stream beside which the mill once stood.

We did this walk on a bright March day, ideal walking weather with the sun out and a cool north breeze.  We left our car near the silage bales at Caim (see map at bottom of this entry), crossed the bridge, and followed the east bank of the stream.  The sides of the small valley are covered in thick stands of oak, hazel and silver birch, and they become increasingly steep, with some fine waterfalls, so its best to keep to the east of the deer fence.

The mill site is on a flat area of grassland just where the stream, the Allt Choire Mhuilinn (the OS's spelling), reaches the sea.  The outline of buildings is clearly visible in the grass, and there is another building in the brambles and bracken to the left of the rock outcrop.  We assumed that the mill was worked by water, but there is no sign of a millrace - the valley sides here are extremely steep.

We then walked northeast from the mill site, climbing a series of low scarps before stopping to look back at the view.  Mingary Castle is clearly visible; the land at top left is the north cast of Mull, and the low island in the distance above the castle is Coll.

The main part of the village in sited on one of the higher platforms.  The ruins of a house are clearly visible at left, and to the right is an enclosure - perhaps a sheep fold or a kaleyard where crops were grown.

 Most of the houses are to the east: there are several in this picture.

Climbing higher, we looked back across the village site.  While the views on a fine day like the one we enjoyed are stunning, it must have been a breezy place is a southwesterly storm - though the houses are tucked down behind a low ridge.

The dark feature running across the bottom right is a stone wall.  It's beautifully built, but it wasn't built by the inhabitants of Corrivullin but by the man who subsequently kept the sheep run at Mingary, because the villagers were cleared to make way for a large sheep farm.

The wall is a testament to the settlement's destruction, for it seems likely that the stones from the houses were used to build it.

An interactive map of the area is here.
The walk is on Ardnamurchan Estate land.  There are often cows and sheep in these fields.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Trooper King

Many readers will remember the Diary entries about Trooper Norman King of the Warwickshire Yeomanry whose body was washed ashore on West Ardnamurchan in 1940 (most recent here).  He was a victim of the sinking of the Arandorra Star which was carrying, amongst others, German prisoners of war and their guards to Canada.

Beryl King, the wife of Norman's brother, Douglas, has contacted the Diary and kindly given permission for two photographs to be published

The first shows Norman King, the picture taken at a prisoner of war camp at Tidworth in Hampshire on 30th September 1939.  Beryl King says that his body was found in a cove near Sanna.

The second, showing Douglas King, Norman's brother, was taken in Aleppo, Syria, in June 1943.  Douglas was also in the Warwickshire Yeomanry.

Beryl says, "Douglas and I and our two sons have visited Kilchoan many times and fell in love with the area so it seemed only natural that when Douglas passed away he should be laid to rest with his brother.

Ian Pittendraugh interred Douglas ashes just before he went to New Zealand.

"I am unfortunately now unable to make the journey to see them (advanced years!!) but I think about them every day."

Many thanks to Beryl King for allowing the Diary to publish these pictures.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Ardnamurchan's Nazca Lines

We're very accustomed to looking down from the tops of hills and seeing areas of flat land beneath us divided into rectangular areas by ditches.  These can sometimes be in places which are miles from any existing village, as with this heavily-drained area which is by the Kilmory turn off the B8007, but we've always assumed they were areas of improved agricultural land.

The winter's dry weather has, however, begun to reveal other ditch systems which don't lend themselves to quite such a simple explanation.  The ditches in this picture of the western flank of Beinn an Leathaid run across land which is rather steep for cultivation....

....while these unusual ditch patterns drain an area on the eastern slope beneath Cathair Mhic Dhiarmaid.  The curved ditch is particularly puzzling.

Like so many things, once noticed we began to find more and more.  These drain an almost precipitous slope of the western side of Beinn an Leathaid and, like those in the second picture, seem to be far from any area of habitation or other workings.  Why is there the sudden kink in the left-hand ditch?

One possibility is that these could be drains cut in preparation for the planting of forestry, but we have checked with the Estate and there is no recollection of these areas being prepared, recently or in the past, for tree-planting.  In any case, they are on very exposed slopes, not ideal even for coniferous woodland.

We then began noticing isolated ditches running across very barren land.  There are two in this picture, which shows the part of the higher slopes in the valley of the Allt Fascadale.  By the time we found these we were.... puzzled.... yet, as we walked up that valley, we found more and more.

Then we spotted these, much higher in the same valley but on the eastern side, cutting across rocky, barren land which no-one would want to use even for tree planting.

The ditches seem to have one thing in common: they all run downhill to a burn or river.  For want of any other explanation, are these some sort of water catchment system, designed to draw water down into burns back in a past age when rain wasn't quite as plentiful as it is today?  Either that, or were the ancient people of West Ardnamurchan emulating the strange lines drawn in the Nazca desert by a lost people in Peru some 1,500 years ago?  If so, can someone please go up in an aeroplane and see what pictures they were drawing.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

The Geology of Glendrian Caves

Glendrian Caves lie just under a kilometre to the east of the abandoned village of Plocaig on Ardnamurchan's spectacular north coast.  The main cave, shown, is a dark, angled cleft which enters the rock to some depth, and is only accessible as the tide retreats.

The Diary visited the caves recently with local geologist and businessman Rob Gill, who runs Geosec Slides from his house in Achnaha - and a fascinating expedition it was.

The rock of which the cliff is formed is a breccia, generated during an eruption when huge amounts of material slipped down the north-facing slope of the Ardnamurchan volcano.  So the rock is formed of pieces of earlier-cooling igneous rocks and the rocks into which the volcano originally intruded, all in a matrix of volcanic ash.

Some of the structures are difficult to interpret, like the large lump of layered rock which runs across the middle of this picture - it's about three metres across and up to a metre thick.  It looks like a finely-layered volcanic ash deposit, but it seems out-of-place in a mess of rock which tumbled down a steep slope.

Perhaps more easy to explain is the darker rock in the middle of this picture, to the right of which is a pound coin to give a scale.  This looks like a cross-section of a small hexagonal basalt column, of the sort seen today in the cliffs on Staffa.

After the volcanic breccia had cooled, it was intruded by sheets of basalt injected upwards and outwards from the volcanic centre - these are seen in this picture as dark layers up to about a metre thick.   Called cone sheets, they are commonly seen along Ardnamurchan's coastline.

Many visitors come down to the caves along this natural stairway.  It follows a dyke, a vertical sheet of molten rock which was injected into the breccia at some stage after the cone sheets.  Usually, such dykes are formed of hard rock which resist erosion, but this one has been eaten away by the sea to form this natural descent.

A map of the area is available here.  The caves are some distance from the nearest road, and are difficult to access unless you're well equipped.  The easiest approach is from Achnaha, though it can be hard going, particularly after heavy rain.

Many thanks to Rob Gill for an enjoyable and instructive experience.
Geosec Slides' website is here.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

A Lost Cottage

At the end of the Ormsaigbeg road, beyond the last house and through the fence that marks the boundary of the township's common grazings, there are some broken stone walls (top right of this picture) which we'd noticed before without, if you understand, really noticing them.  But the other day we took a closer look and were surprised at what we found.

The nearer and smaller rectangular walled structure is very broken but shows all the signs of being an old stone byre or, possibly, a 'but and ben' house.  It looks out across a shelf of land to a slope which drops steeply away to the beach, some 30m below.  The further of the two rectangles is interesting only because, from the profusion of flags growing within, it contains soil which is far richer than the land surrounding it.

The structures are clearly visible at bottom left in this satellite picture.  A wall runs northeast-southwest along the back of them, beyond which the land rises in a steep scree slope.  The remains of another, less well-built wall encloses much of the 'shelf' below the structures.

In the middle of this enclosed area is a pile of stones.  This is very likely to be a 'field cairn', a pile of stones and rocks which were thrown there as someone cleared the land for cultivation.  While it isn't evident from the photographs, it's also possible in some lights to see the characteristic undulations of lazy beds.

Someone who has lived in Ormsaigbeg all his life says that this was once the home of a shepherd who was employed by the crofters of Ormsaigbeg to care for the sheep which they kept on the common grazings in the hills above the township.  They paid him for his services, but he also had a small piece of land which he farmed and upon which he had a small house.  Since this story came from our informant's mother, and she never knew the shepherd, it's likely that the house was last occupied some time before 1900.   While he couldn't be sure, he thought that the shepherd's name was MacKenzie.

An interactive map showing the location of the building is here.