Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2014 - Thank You!

This blog depends heavily on the photographs it carries, and for these I have to thank the engineers at Panasonic, the makers of the wonderful contraption which, when pointed at something exciting, like these two Ardnamurchan Estate stags sparring in early January morning sunshine, produces the most brilliant pictures.

Catching an exciting picture depends hugely on luck - and having the camera ready to hand.  This sparrowhawk, spotted one February lunchtime through the conservatory window, has spent the year feasting off the plump small birds we so extravagantly feed and whose antics have given us so much enjoyment this year.  I don't begrudge the sparrowhawk his meals: he, like all top predators, has his right to life and we'd be so much the poorer if we lost him.

This photo, taken in brisk March conditions looking from Glas Bheinn across Kilchoan, Ormsaigmore and Ormsaigbeg which, together, make the main settlement of West Ardnamurchan, is a small way of paying tribute to the people who survive year-round in this remote place, often in difficult circumstances. A special message goes to those who give so very generously of their time to manning our emergency services, without whom life here would be impossible. To the volunteers at Kilchoan Fire Brigade, to the dwindling band of Emergency Responders, and to the members of HM Coastguard Kilchoan: thank you.

One of our great pleasures is watching the ships that sail through the Sound of Mull.  Like 'planes, ships are intricate pieces of machinery, the work of many people who design and build them, skills which we once had in abundance in this country but which we have, so sadly, allowed to wither.  At least we still build our warships in the UK: this is the Type 45 destroyer HMS Dragon, built with pride on the Clyde and seen passing down the Sound of Mull in April.

Another pleasure, and a privilege, has been watching the transformation of the 13th century Mingary Castle from a ruin that was on the verge of falling into the sea into a building which will, once again, be in everyday use, albeit in a very different role.  My special thanks to Donald Houston for asking me to write a blog about this work, and to all those who have made me so welcome on site, especially builders JP, Mark, and their workmen, all of whom have been particularly kind and helpful.

It has been a great privilege living another year in a part of the world which, while it is, at times, fierce, is never, ever boring, and at most times is stunningly beautiful.  This is Sanna, photographed from Beinn Dubh, the black hill. Beinn Dubh illustrates a problem which it would be wonderful to have the time to tackle in 2015: it is not named on the OS maps, and it was only through the help of Mr Alastair MacColl, who lived here as a boy and knows the area, that I learned its name.

Coming from a background in which, when I was younger, I specialised in maths, physics and chemistry to the total exclusion of the biological sciences, one of the excitements of our wanderings across this peninsula has been the steady discovery of its wonderful plant life.  This little orchid is very special: Irish Lady's Tresses are rare, there being only about a dozen other sites in the UK where it survives, yet in July we found four growing in Ormsaigbeg.

In August we met a neighbour who, very probably, had been living just beyond the back fence of our garden for some time.  Ardnamurchan has its fair share of adders but, until we met this one, they had all been the standard colour.  The black of the black adder may be an adaptation to a more northerly habitat, where the colour absorbs sunlight better, enabling the snake to become active both earlier in the year and earlier on a chill morning.

I don't know how many walks we've taken in the hills and along the coastlines of West Ardnamurchan during 2014, but we must average two good ones a week, and for the fact that our health enables us to continue to do this we should be truly thankful.  Mrs Diary has walked all of them with me, a patient companion since she has to stop every few yards while a picture is taken.  Since it is quite normal to return at the end of a walk with upwards of a hundred pictures, progress can be....  slow. This is the only 'selfie' we've ever taken, sitting on a rock just along from the peak of Creag an Airgid, looking across Ardnamurchan's volcanic centre towards Sanna on a  glorious September day.

One of the growing interests of 2014 has been in the archaeology of this end of the peninsula.  A small group of amateur archaeologists has been active in 2014, learning new skills through the good offices of Archaeology Scotland, recording the many monuments that are scattered across the landscape, and discovering how to log over a hundred of them on the national database.  In October we began our exploration of Branault with a detailed photographic record of the Bronze Age Branault standing stone.

In November, luck gave me this picture while walking home along the Ormsaigbeg road, an eagle wheeling against a daytime moon.  The winter months always seem the best for eagles, but we've had magnificent sightings of both sea and golden eagles throughout the year.

To those of us not directly involved in farming, it's always exciting to see an eagle, but the increasing numbers of sea eagles, in particular, has lead to a rise in the predation of lambs.  Twice in 2014, the Diary published photos of sea eagles carrying away the carcases of lambs.

Finally, the Diary would like to extend a special 'thank you' to those who haven't minded being named in blog posts - Hughie in particular - and to those people, both locals and visitors, who have sent in stories and pictures which have made a pleasant change from the usual ramblings of this writer.  Kilchoan Early Bird has been particularly kind, and there have been many super pictures from many people, but this one stands out, taken across the small bay just south of Ardnamurchan Point lighthouse by the Raptor during a December storm.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Frost at Strontian

Local postie Ritchie Dinnes, along with his family, went walking on Sunday at Ariundle, near Strontian, some miles to the east of us, and has kindly sent the Diary these pictures taken along the Strontian River.

At this end of the peninsula we very rarely see a frost like this one.  Ritchie says that when they left Kilmory the temperature was 5C, and is was the same when they returned, which shows what an amazing difference a few miles can make to the ambient temperature.

Maiden Flight of the Phantom

Yesterday saw the maiden flight of Jim's new dji Phantom quadcopter.  It would have been at Sanna but the wind which, along with the rain, has kept it grounded for what were, for Jim, six agonising weeks, rose during the afternoon to about force 4, so the first flight took place at the sheltered end of the football pitch by the Community Centre, much to the dismay of the small flock of sheep which are there to keep the grass down through the winter.

Jim has had a couple of smaller machines on which to learn his flying skills.  Even so, his control of the new machine was near-perfect and, in retrospect, the wind at Sanna wouldn't have been too daunting.  He put the quadcopter through its full paces, including suddenly turning off the control unit during a flight and watching as the Phantom, after a moment or two's thought, suddenly rose to 100ft, flew back to where we were standing, and landed neatly on the grass in front of us.

The quadcopter is flown using a control unit (left) while the on-board camera is operated via an iPad app.  The camera takes both video and still pictures.  While it's possible for one person to work both, for the maiden flight the Diary had the privilege of acting as co-pilot, operating the iPad.

Here are the first results.  This one might be captioned 'eye-to-eye'.

The speed with which the Phantom rises and the distances it can travel are quite remarkable.  A single charged battery allows a fifteen-minute flight, and the maximum range before the signal is lost is about 1,000m.  In this picture, the Community Centre is at bottom left, Pier Road curves away into the distance, and Ben Hiant is at top left.

Flying it on the football pitch was fun, but the Phantom has some serious applications.  Jim, as a mainstay of the Ardnamurchan Community Archaeology group, has promised to take aerial pictures recording some of West Ardnamurchan's heritage, and here is a first try, a bronze or iron age stone circle, probably the foundations for a large communal hut, with a diameter for about 12m.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Pig on the Loose

We had just enjoyed another fiery sunrise this morning, with the prospect of a sunny day to come, when everything was spoilt.... a resurgence of pig problems.  Just as Ormsaigbeg residents were beginning to get used to the idea that pigs stayed in their electrified pens and that it's sheep, at this time of year, which wander all over the croft lands and threaten our vegetable gardens, this sow came waltzing down the road, having paid a rather unwelcome visit to the croft on the other side of us, which also has pigs.

In the low light of late afternoon on a drive out of the village towards Caim, we saw a large herd of as many as fifty red deer grazing near the road.  The pleasure of this peaceful country scene was rather spoiled by the thought that, one day, if deer numbers exploded as fast as local pig populations, we might find a similar sized herd enjoying our vegetable garden.

News of Tim Steele

Many people, both local residents and visitors, will know Tim Steele, who has had his base in Kilchoan for nearly twenty years.  After being deeply involved in the completion and opening of our Community Centre, he began his travels, so we've not seen so much of him except for when, during breaks back in this country, he volunteered in the Centre.

Before the tsunami disaster in Sri Lanka, he worked with VSO in setting up community-based organisations there, using his experience from setting up the Community Centre as well as from his earlier private sector commercial career.

Post-disaster relief work in Sri Lanka included raising nearly $500,000 from UDAid to reconstruct villages, houses, clinic and schools, empowering local people to do the work.

In Bangladesh he has helped set up a pharmaceutical company, has set up a Prince of Wales Youth Business International programme, a Bangladesh Youth Enterprise Advice and Helpcentre, and supported the development of an inbound tourism facility that involved the building of an eighteen-berth luxury river cruiser.

Most recently, he has concept developed, and overseen the design, engineering and construction of a luxury resort Surfing Club, the Cox’s Bazar Surf Club, and opened it to provide facilities for both resident expatriates and inbound tourists, on what is believed to be one of the world’s longest sea beaches....

....the 120km beach that reaches from Cox’s Bazar - named in 1799 for Scots-born Captain Hiram Cox - to the Myanmar border on the Naf river.

The Club was officially opened in June by the British High Commissioner, HE Robert W Gibson CMG. Tim now expects to be seen more often back in Kilchoan.

It's always good to carry news of the links this small Scottish community has to many unusual places across the world.  If you have a story, please contact the Diary

Sunday, 28 December 2014

On a Clear Morning....

At this time of year, on a clear morning, dawn seems to go on forever.  The first light was in the sky long before seven, when we surfaced, and by a quarter to nine the sun had still not shown his face - a ferry and two jet planes had made much earlier starts on their day's journeys.

Ten minutes later one could tell where the sun was going to appear, though....

 ....five minutes later he was still playing with an increasingly cold photographer, finally....

....breaking the horizon at seven minutes past nine.

We had planned to drive east along the peninsula for a walk in the foothills of Ben Hiant, but one look at the road, white with a night's frost and covered in sheets of black ice from surface water flowing across it from blocked drains, changed our minds so, instead....

....we walked up the back of the house, then headed west into the vast spaces which are the Ormsaigbeg township's common grazings.  By this time the first clouds were drifting across the sky on a light northerly wind, gradually....

 ....obscuring the sun.

The frost made for some treacherous walking, made worse by the days of rain and hail we've had, which have left the earth cold and saturated.

The vegetation in the hills looks dead, brown and burnt by the cold, hardly a blade of green and not a flower in a place where, just a couple of months ago, wildflowers grew in profusion and we enjoyed one of the best shows of heather in years.  Only in places.... there a splash of brilliant colour.  Please, how does moss manage what all the other plants can't?

As we walked higher, so the encroaching cloud darkened the landscape until the scene lay spread below us in shades of monochrome.

As always, we had some sort of objective, and this was the first place we wanted to revisit.  Dubh Chreag, at top left, means the black crag, though there's nothing darker about it than any of the other peaks around it.  One could speculate over how it got its name: there are signs of old agricultural workings in the glen running up this side of it and, if one looks hard enough, of a small stone structure, perhaps a dwelling; so perhaps the man who lived here was called Dubh, as someone who lives alone in such a bleak wilderness might be, and this little summit was named for him.

Once across the saddle between the hills we could see north to the white peaks of Rum.  In front of it is the much smaller island of Muck, and the bay on the coast is Sanna.  We also saw that the cloud might clear.

Looking east, with the sun just reappearing, this is one of the twin lochans which nestle in the wide glen between the ridge behind our house, Druim na Gearr Leacainn, and the heights of Beinn na Seilg.

From the summit of Dubh Creag we looked northwest towards Ardnamurchan Point lighthouse and the Minches.  The twin lochans are called Lochain Dubh, the black lochans, and the larger loch beyond is Loch Caorach, the sheep's loch.
This was our final objective, Lochan na Cloich, the stoney lochan, perched in a cut in the hills.  A thin skin of ice covered the lochan's surface, which was....

....broken by the heads of some coarse grass and a scattering of rocky islands after which, perhaps, the lochan was named.

A Busy Ben Hiant

Ben Hiant looked beautiful in the early afternoon sunshine, tranquil, magnificent, peaceful, but.... must have been a busy place earlier, with someone paragliding off its summit while three companions watched from just below the trig point, and....

....Kilchoan Early Bird with his group reaching the summit across some fairly treacherous-looking rocks, before....

.....exploring a new route down.

Many thanks to the Raptor for the photo of the paraglider,
and to Kilchoan Early Bird for the third & fourth pictures.

Saturday, 27 December 2014


An exceptionally heavy hail shower woke us around half past three this morning.  The land was still white with it when we first got up but by midday most had melted away, except on the higher tops.  We walked down to the bay below the house to enjoy some of the sunshine, with not a breath of breeze to disturb the surface of the sea.

Looking up to the back of the beach, the hills where we walked on Christmas Day were dusted with what looked like icing sugar.  Huge amounts of kelp and other seaweeds cover the beach from recent storms, offering rich pickings to some of the croft sheep and to....

....a number of small birds, including pipits, dunnocks and this lonely grey wagtail.

Clouds and low mist have come and gone all day.  When the wind finally woke it set itself in the north and the temperature, which had struggled to 6C at midday, began to fall.  We're hoping the clouds will clear later as there were aurora events last night.