Friday, 28 February 2014

Venus Hunting

Many thanks to Nick Bruce for this fine picture of 'Venus hunting'.  We've had an exciting couple of days of events in the sky, with the promise of more to come.  The discovery that there's a magnetometer on Mull - link here - should help those of us living nearby who are keen to see yet more in the way of auroras. It's worth a look at the link to see what happened last night.

A Paddle in the Hills

To recover from the excitement of last night we set off this morning to walk in the area between Glas Bheinn, the grey hill, and the sheds at Caim.  It's open moorland with hardly a tree, but there's a dramatic change in vegetation between the side where we were walking - Ardnamurchan Estate land - and the land on the other side of the deer fence, the far side having much more heather.  This may be a consequence of the difference in use: the Estate side is grazed and browsed by sheep, cattle and deer, whereas the far side, which is seen at the top of the slope in this picture and is Kilchoan Township's common grazings, is predominately sheep.

In one way it was a slightly eerie walk because, for almost every step - or squelch - of the way we were being watched.  Sometimes it was small groups of deer, such as this stag with his six ladies.  As we approached the four on the lower part of the slope made off, leaving the stag and the two remaining hinds to watch us.

Sometimes the watcher was a lone stag looking haughtily down on us.

In such circumstances we try to avoid the deer without allowing them to divert us too far from our intended route, but we hate disturbing them and watching them run away.  To be able to roam amongst animals which are, largely, wild, is a privilege and a pleasure.

Even the hill slopes were saturated from the recent rain, but they made better going than the lower, marshy areas, some of which were practically impassable.  At least we managed to complete our walk this time without slipping and falling.

This is Lochan Clach a' Chorrach, a lochan which is marked on the OS map as a fraction of its present size.  I have been asked by readers to try to include translations of local Gaelic names, but this is one which, with my minimal knowledge of the language, is difficult.  Clach is a stone, but the dictionary gives Chorrach as either 'fetters' or 'steep, precipitous'.  The location has none of the feature of the latter, so one wonders about the reference to stone fetters.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Aurora at Last!

We're just back from Sanna where, at last, we saw a really good display of the northern lights.  This one, which was taken from the bridge between Sanna and Achnaha, also includes Taurus and the Pleiades, and looks over Meall Sanna, while....

....this one looked northwest from Sanna itself, with the lights of Lower Sanna....

....and this looked north.  The sky was plagued with cloud, but Stewart Pote at Achnaha saw it a little earlier....

....and these three were taken by him.

For anyone who is awake at this time, the display continues, though here on West Ardnamurchan clouds are, once again, spoiling it for us.

Many thanks to Kilchoan Early Bird for alerting us to the display and to Stewart for the three lower photos.

Secret Woodland - 1

One of the bonuses of having camcorders set up in woodland all over West Ardnamurchan looking for wildcats is that they also capture the secret life of these woodlands.  This clip shows a pine marten going about his nightly business.

Video clip courtesy Ben McKeown, with thanks for allowing me to show it.
Ben's photographs are at

Venus Hunting

Many thanks to Derryck Morton, who lives in Devon, for this picture of Venus and the waning crescent moon taken yesterday morning at 5.30 on his way to work.  It shows a conjunctions that's sometimes called 'Venus hunting' - the moon being seen as her bow.

Derryck wanted to know whether we had seen it: we hadn't because, although we were up early to get into Fort William, clouds covered the sky.  However, both Venus and the moon were visible this morning, intermittently between the clouds, but never together.

Following the recent blog about the aurora, I'm grateful to Andrew Pote for a link to a local magnetometer on Mull, which should help with our aurora hunting - it's here.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

A Poem

by Joey MacKenzie:

West Highland Plea

Rain – you are the bane
Of my existence.
Last night I heard you beating on my pane,
This morning you are dribbling there again.
What is it to be today?
Without your aider and abetter,
Wind, a steady seep?
It beats me why you keep
Hanging around here all day,
How I wish you'd go away
Go and take a holiday.
Oh yes.  Please do!
For now, we've really had enough of you,
So, take a break.  Hie away!
Absent yourself for quite some time
Think of the places where you're missed
And there deliver your largesse.

Reproduced, with the family's permission, from Joey MacKenzie's publication 'A Handful of Verses', 1995.
Joey lived most of her life at Kilmory, on the north coast.
Picture looks across the beach at Kilmory to Achateny.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Gordon Gets a Transfer

For sixteen and a half years Gordon MacKenzie has driven the daily Shiel Bus service from Kilchoan to Fort William and back, leaving from the Ferry Stores at 7.50am, or thereabouts, and arriving back at some time after 3.30pm depending on how many messages there were to deliver and whether he had to go down to Kilmory or not.

He's done his job with infinite patience and great good humour.  He's also done many of us many favours, from collecting things from Fort William to making deliveries - such as punctured tyres to Shiel Garage.

We've had many memorable trips with him, like the one shown in this picture when we'd been to Jamaica on a holiday which was delayed for three days by an Icelandic ash cloud.  As usual, we'd asked what had happened in the village during our absence, to be told, as usual, "Not much".

All this good cheer and goodwill has earned him a rich reward: he's been appointed to the new Adelphi distillery at Glenbeg.  Gordon plays for Kilchoan FC, so he already has an association with the distiller through the team strip.  For a man who enjoys both football and a dram, his new job must be nothing short of a transfer to heaven.

Monday, 24 February 2014


Following the Raptor's claim to have seen, and even photographed bullfinches on Ardnamurchan, Mavis Scott sends the Diary this lovely picture of a female enjoying a meal of daisies during their holiday in Glenborrodale in June 2013.  She also claims to have seen a male near Salen.

The Diary is beginning to wonder why it's only other people who see this spectacular little bird.

Many thanks to Mavis Scott for the photo.

The Search for an Aurora

These are both worrying times for those of us who would love to see the northern lights.  It's not that we haven't ever seen them - we were lucky enough to experience a dazzling display here about twelve years or so ago, when the whole sky was filled with curtains of moving light.  It's just that, for those of us who are getting old, and know that the aurora is at its peak with the present maximum sunspot activity, which only happens every eleven years or so, we'd like to see them one more time.

Part of the problem has been the rotten aurora-watching weather, with clouds firmly across the sky whenever there's been an alert - which there was again last night.  The other is that we are very dependent on the aurora forecasting sites.  The one above is the record over the last 24 hours from Aurorawatch, based at the University of Lancaster.  At one time they kept a magnetometer in Scotland, which gave predictions which were fairly accurate for us, but since they moved their activities to Lancaster their predictions have been less useful.

Recently, however, the website Cumbernauld Weather, working with Aurorawatch, has developed a magnetometer and has put its readings on line.  The above display shows their readings for the same period and, as can be seen, they're very different.  This makes one realise that the aurora is a very localised phenomenon, and that one's chances of seeing it are based on a willingness, on any clear night, to go out frequently and have a look.

To help to overcome the problem, we've set up a local group who are alerted when there's a warning.  Our most valuable members are those who live on the north coast, who have the best chance of seeing the northern lights.

A broader prediction is provided by sites like this one, at the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute, here.  Last night it showed a '4', with the green line, the southern limit of visible aurora activity, well down over northern Scotland.

There's plenty of choice of sites.  Another interesting one is TESIS, whose data is based on instruments developed by the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Science, and launched aboard the Russian spacecraft CORONAS-PHOTON in January 30, 2009.  Their results for the last 24 hours are shown above.

We're running out of time.  With the day lengthening, with auroras very difficult to see during the short summer nights, and with sunspot activity falling away by next winter, it's possibly a case of now or never.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

A Butting Problem

We had just under 27mm of rain between 8.00am yesterday and the same time this morning, and the early part of last night saw a near gale in the enclosed waters of the Sound.

Everything is absolutely saturated.  Trees appear to be growing out of lakes, fields are flooded, roads are knee-deep in water...,

....and our vegetable gardens are more like swimming pools.  This cabbage, with its roots permanently saturated, hasn't grown in two months.

Unlike many of you who live on flatter lands or flood plains, we're lucky that most surface water here drains away quickly.  A burn that is a raging torrent one minute can be down to its normal level in a few hours.  However, the effects of weeks and weeks on unremitting grey skies and dampness have more subtle effects, both on people and their animals.

For example, a serious outbreak of butting has broken out amongst the local tups.  The gentleman in this field has turned so cantankerous that owner Nan MacLachlan has had a special notice commissioned warning passers by not to enter his field and, if they really have to, not to turn their back on him.

He's not alone.  Two other crofters have reported similar problems with tups which, until recently, never caused any problem.  It may be that they, like the local humans, are cordially fed up with the weather and are inclined to take their frustrations out on anything that's not on the lookout.
Not that it's all grey skies.  This afternoon we enjoyed a brief clearance which was accompanied by some spectacular rainbows, with weather that reminded us of October with its sunshine and sudden, sharp showers.  The forecast is for a continuation of these strong westerlies.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Match of the Decade

Forget the Olympics, there's a feast of international-standard football coming up next weekend when Kilchoan Ladies take on Uist Ladies in that Mecca of sport, Mallaig.

Saturday 1st March
12:30 kick off
The astro pitch, Mallaig High School. 
Clachain Inn afterwards for refreshments.

Picture above shows Kilchoan beating Coll back in July 2012.

Winter Birds

Many thanks to Kilchoan Early Bird for these pictures of a young great northern diver - also called a great northern loon in North America - preening itself in the sea off Ardnamurchan.  He's making a thorough job of it....

...even if it means half rolling onto his side.  These birds, which are excellent underwater swimmers, catch anything that isn't too big for them, their diet including mackerel, herring, haddock, sprats, sand eels, prawns and crabs.

They're seen off the west coast of Scotland during the winter months, when their haunting cry can be heard, after which they set off for their breeding grounds in Iceland, Greenland and North America.

The Diary keeps informing The Raptor that bullfinches are not to be found in this part of the Highlands, and he keeps saying that he's seen them, even once maintaining that there was one flying around Ormsaigbeg.  Today he sent in these pictures of a bullfinch which he says he spotted at the junction of the Mingary road and the main B8007.

The Diary rather suspects he's been across to the east of Scotland and caught this very smart male there.

Many thanks to Kilchoan Early Bird and The Raptor for the pictures.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Ardnamurchan Wildcat Project

There was a time, some fifty or more years ago, when wildcats on Ardnamurchan and, for that matter, across large areas of the Highlands, were so common, and such a threat to poultry, that they were treated as vermin. Today, most visitors and locals know that they are here, but few have seen them - and that's because, for reasons that are complex, the wildcat population has plummeted. The grim fact is that the pure, unhybridised Scottish wildcat is teetering on the edge of extinction. Recent estimates put the number of true wildcats at around a hundred and perhaps as few as 35, making it one of the world's rarest cats.

Dr Paul O'Donoghue, a biologist at the University of Chester, has done a great deal of work on creating a genetic test to identify a pure-bred wildcat - see article here. But, as another BBC article here suggests, the emphasis on finding and preserving the Scottish wildcat has been concentrated in places like the Cairngorms National Park. The trouble is that, with the large number of domestic cats both within and around the park, and real problems with the numbers of feral cats, the National Park's wildcats are likely to be far from pure. As a result, Paul O'Donoghue has sent a team of veterinary surgeons to carry out fieldwork in places that are most likely to harbour true wildcats - which is why they're now working on Ardnamurchan and Morvern.

Tom Williams and James Cavanagh are veterinary surgeons who have been here on-and-off for some months, doing two things. Firstly, they have been going door-to-door finding all the domestic cats on Ardnamurchan and checking to see that they are not a threat to local breeding wildcats. What they have found has thrilled them. Ardnamurchan, thanks to the work of the local Cats' Protection League and the general support of residents, has few domestic cats that aren't neutered, and even fewer feral cats, which convinces him that the local wildcat population is likely to be amongst the purest in Scotland. James said, “It’s very clear people here really are responsible cat owners.”

Tom is passionate about the need to control feral cats. He says, "I predict that conservationists, scientists and government will wake up to the ecological threat of feral cats. This non native super predator living and breeding in the wild will go on to threaten other species as well as the wildcat. There will be a need to identify owned pets from feral cats and the only reliable practical way of doing this is with good quality microchips." So the team is offering to insert microchips, for free, into our domestic cats if the owner so wishes.

The second thing they have been doing is trying to find the remaining local wildcats. They've had successes, such as some very definite local reports, and they have evidence from scat - the faeces of wildcats. They, and others who have been helping them, have also been setting trail cameras in likely places, but these have, so far, recorded plenty of fox and pine martens, but no cats.

Now Tom and James and the rest of the team are appealing for local help. They want anyone whom they have not visited, but who has a cat, to contact them. We've done that and, as a bonus, Tom gave our ageing cats a quick health check - we now know that one of them has arthritis. But the emphasis is now on asking everyone to report any sightings of wildcats direct to them. They are also asking for any other evidence, such as scat (picture above), tracks and, if people have more success than they, clips from trail cams, to be logged with them. We're coming into the wildcats' breeding season, so everyone needs to act with care.

There's now a permanent box in the right-hand column of this blog with information about wildcats.

Tom Williams has agreed to act as the link to the Ardnamurchan community - please contact him on 07531 407 939 or

Photo of wildcat taken by Helen Haden at the British Wildlife Centre, and reproduced under the Creative Commons licence - for which, many thanks Helen. Her picture, and her Flickr photo stream, are here.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Jacobite Rounding the Light

Many thanks to Kilchoan Early Bird for these pictures of the creel fishing boat Jacobite rounding Ardnamurchan Point lighthouse in brisk weather a few minutes ago.

Readers shouldn't be misled by the cheerful blue sky: that's only arrived in the last couple of hours.  Since 8.00pm last night we've had a wet westerly blowing which has brought us just under 30mm of the wrong sort of Kilchoan sunshine.

These pictures also remind us of the sort of conditions our fisherman face in order to deliver fresh fish to our tables, though these Tobermory men will probably say it wasn't too bad a day today.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Another Stone Circle

I was out this morning in the wild and open moorland between Loch Mudle and Camas nan Geall with Allyson and Andrew Perkins to map the stone circle they've found.  It's about 10 metres in diameter and almost perfectly circular except on the northern side.  Andrew mapped it from a one-metre square grid on the ground created from lengths of rope.  It's hard work, but each time we do it the process becomes a little more refined.

This is the third stone circle which members of the Ardnamurchan Community Archaeology group have located and, more and more, we're beginning to think that they're the remains of Bronze Age huts, which makes them about 2,000 years old.  The stones formed a low wall from which branches were laid to form a conical roof, which was covered with reeds, heather and turfs.  This large hut may have been a communal one; there were signs of a second, much smaller circle nearby.

The weather continued grey with a stiff and chilly southeasterly, but there were signs of it clearing away to the north - this view looks across Loch Mudle to Eigg.

On the way back these two stags were resting near the road.  The one on the right has lost one of his antlers.

I stopped the car and sat very quietly to watch them, but some workmen were nearby and disturbed them.  They stood but didn't move off.

When the left stag turned away he, too, had lost an antler.  These may have been broken in the rut but it's also the time of year when they start to fall off naturally.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

A Busy Day in the Sound

So we had a 'proper' sunrise this morning, the sun appearing above the Morvern horizon shortly after 7.50 and shining across a Sound which was hardly ruffled by a light breeze.  It's a pity the wind didn't blow the clouds away first as it's been a lovely but sunless day.

First light revealed this ship, the Bibby Tethra, a ship which has an unusual and supposedly very efficient hull design - details here.  She's one of five ships owned and operated by Osiris Projects which specialise in seabed surveys.  They say of themselves, "Since 1997, we have worked closely with clients from the oil and gas, offshore renewables, submarine cables, ports and harbours, aggregates and utilities industries to provide efficient and cost-effective survey services."

She has spent the day steaming back and forth between the Kilchoan's CalMac pier and Tobermory. Since oil and gas are unlikely to be found in the Sound of Mull, the only thing in the list that might be applicable is submarine cables.  Could it be that she's doing a survey for the high-speed broadband cable which is supposed to be coming through Kilchoan in about a year's time?

An unusual passer-by at this time of year was the yacht seen to the right of the picture.  Sadly, she didn't have AIS so we don't know her name.

Also in the Sound today was the Forth Guardsman, a multi-purpose workboat owned by Briggs Marine, website here.  One of her capabilities is to lay submarine cables - though her presence here at the same time as the Tethra must be a coincidence.

As the Forth Guardsman was moving down the Sound, she was passed by the Yeoman Bridge, heading in ballast for the quarry at Glensanda.  In the background are the snow-covered slopes of  Ben Talaidh.